Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Two Libran Birthdays

Traditional Libra Traits:

Diplomatic and urbane
Romantic and charming
Easygoing and sociable
Idealistic and peaceable
Indecisive and changeable

Gullible and easily influenced

We celebrated two Libran birthdays very recently...that of K and Sabya Da, K's colleague and our mutual friend was funny, the fact that we celebrated them in a somewhat similar manner, having dinner together, but then, there were marked differences too. A bit about those in detail, if you please.

K's birthday was ushered in by scraps on orkut greeting him before midnight of the Birth Day here, since it was already the 11th of Oct as per Indian time and Indians were busy celebrating it everywhere across the country, possibly with huge fanfare. Why is it 'Birth Day' and not birthday, do you dare to ask? Because K means the world to me, for starters. And then, yes, if that doesn't count as a valid reason, he does share his birthday with the Big B. Now if that doesn't make a mark, you couldn't really be bothered. To continue.

We had been cooking late in the evening when Baba called from Ahmadpur, so that K had the good fortune to be blessed by my aging paternal grandparents. I don't mean to be fatalistic but they have both been ailing recently and I don't know whether he would have the same good fortune in future.Baba was impressed by the menu I told him we had all lined up for tomorrow and actually requested me to try out some of the recipes when I came back to India. I was moved, which wasn't strange, considering that it has hardly been within my scope or capability to give my father anything worthwhile, since till my marriage, he was always the 'giver in general', being the head of the family. Next, it was Sushmit and Namita's turn to greet K and us to wish them shubho bijoya in turn, along with Kakima (Sush's mother) and Aunty (Namita's mother).

Anyway, after that, K called home and gave his parents his pronam on this auspicious day. Basically, for the non-ritualistic, that can be summed up as paying obeisance to his parents for having the brilliant presence of mind to create him !:-))) Mamoni requested him to wear something new and Bapi just blessed him, having earlier already transferred enough money to his account to buy himself a few decent clothes, which K interpreted as 'sweaters and jackets', now that winter is making its icy presence felt at abrupt turns and awkward times. While he did that, I was writing in the card I had secretly bought for him at the main street dollar store, since it was the only place (apart from the Somerville library) , where I was allowed to go unchaperoned and that too, because I had groceries to do. I sliped it under his pillow and made no mention of it until it was past midnight and he was getting ready to go to bed. I asked him to go look under his pillow and then smartly shut the bathroom door on myself. I went directly to the kitchen after that to get some water to drink. He was so silent for a while that I thought he hadn't taken to the card. The thought scared me. But then he just came out of the bedroom into the kitchen and held me close for a minute as if he would never let me go. So I guess he liked it after all.

The next morning, we woke comparatively early for us (on a weekend) at 9 am. I wished him, woke up (yes, in that order )and went to make tea. He completed his usual round of bathroom activities and then called up Titai in Vizag, where Abir, her in laws etc and she were holidaying, post-Pujo. Bapi had called while K was still asleep and informed him that his sister had been unable to get through to him to covey her birthday wishes. I guess it is kind of odd calling up folks at home so that they can wish you and not the other way around. But of course, staying abroad does have its limitations too. Anyway, their birthday and our bijoya wishes coincided, so it was a meaningful phone coversation after all. After that, Ma and Mitu called and wished.

I really thought it was going to be non-stop phone calls and sms-s that day, until I woke up to the fact that we were not in India. Most of the wishes from back home came over the net and some took the opportunity to conveniently overlook the birthday thing, which I found quite obnoxious.Anyway, we partook of a spartan but healthy breakfast of garlic bread and pasta in vegetables soup and got down to business. Well, for me , that meant successively getting all the recipes and ingredients ready for chilli paneer, chicken chettinaad, ghee bhaat and shimayer payesh, though it was K who ultimately took over the ghee bhaat or polau from me. I'm glad he did, because it was 4.30 pm when I was finally done with the payesh. He had earlier spent the entire morning working on office projects and talking to colleagues on the phone regarding them non-stop and quite enthusiastically until I was ready to scream with frustration. I mean, one's birthday comes only once a year and how can you possibly want to work on that day, of all days.? Sometimes, honestly, from that point of view, I think K becomes a total stranger for me.

To return to the point. K left at 5.30 pm to have a look at a car that he had shortlisted over the net and thought might turn out to be a good deal. The next thing I knew, ( I had been taking a short nap to look fresh before our dinner guest were to arrive), he was calling me to inform me that he was at the ATM, extracting money to book the car and asked me for my feedback. Turns out he had flipped over it the moment he had had a close look at it. It's a 2000 Hyundai Elantra GLS Sedan, bottle green in colour, has had only one owner, is in top condition and boasts the usual features.... a 4 cylinder gasoline run engine, tan interiors, AM/FM stereo, AC, driver and passenger air bags, rear window defroster, power windows, power door locks, power steering, power mirrors, tinted glass, matching set of Toyo tires in prime condition with a mileage of about just over a lakh miles. Everything, including the price, added up to a good deal and one that K promptly sealed, as soon as I gave the go-ahead. Not that I could have done otherwise, seeing that we had been ransacking the net for a decent car for over a month now without having clinched a bargain till then. All the cars that we had been shortlisting were either 'sold' when we called to enquire or else located too great a distance away to go over and have a look or generating weird car fax reports. A certain Lakshmi Narayanan must have become rich, if we calculate the number of times we paid him the recurring amount of $2 to get us our car fax reports. A few days later, he emailed us one night to say that he wouldn't be able to provide us with any more reports as his account was nearing its expiry. It sounded as if he had been offering us honorary services so long. Hummmmmmmmph. Anyway, K assured him not to worry about us or our car-related fates any longer as we had already booked a car. What the *#@^#!

Anyway, I suppose the car could be considered K's bithday present to himself, which is why I am happy that the day of its booking coincided with K-Day ! After all, all I could come up with for him this time were a card and a decent dinner. I had planned so much last year, hypothesising the day being celebrated with friends and family in India. The entire flat would have been tastefully decorated, Mamoni and I would have jointly hosted a lavish dinner party with cakes and candles and the works. He would be surprised to find all his close friends reunited at his place on this day to tearfully thank him for his existence in their lives etc. Well. It might not have turned out quite as melodramatic perhaps in actuality but the bare outline would probably have been the same. Alas, the gulf between the ideal and the actual. It always remains, do what you will.

The actuality turned out to be not quite as dreary as it could have been. Moumita and Sabya Da were unexpectedly punctual and surprised K with a thoughtfully purchased gift of a full-sleeved baseball t-shirt (see adjoining photos). Moumita even remembered to get me an entire packet of colourful rubberbands, erstwhile non-entities which had gained considerable value in my eyes ever since I found that they were not so common after all, in this country. All the stores here seem to use a length of fine metal wire encased in a bright green or white plastic sheath which they twist around plastic carry bags in lieu of a rubberband. After the Maitis' arrival, I ordered K to change into a white pyjama -punjabi, more suited for the occasion than the regulation jeans and T-shirt that he seemed to be more keen on being attired in, immune to my neo-cultural aesthetic fervour. To inspire him, I myself gave up my blue skirt, black T-shirt for a black salwar kameez and thus decked up, we all left for a visit to the Bridgewater Temple, where it proved more than usually difficult to find a parking spot. Everyone seemed to have procrastinated their religious fervour so long, timing it to climax on this particular day, when it meant so much for us to receive the blessings of our deities and let them know that on this one day, we do know that we owe more to them than just our habitual prayer in times of adversity and distress.

When we did finally locate a slot to park, the interiors of the temple suitably rewarded our perseverance. It was squeaky clean, enough to immediately prompt reverence from the most atheistic amongst our community. Apart from that, I was extremely impressed by their shoe-deposit room, where there are numerous wooden shelves to safely stow away your shoes and not have to worry about washing your hands after that dirty bit of work, since you even have a convenient low basin to wash your hands after that. To the left of the entrance, by the way, was a large souvenir/worship shop, where you can buy keepsakes etc to satisfy the religious side of your personality and to the right is a deck for the deposit of shoes by the physically challenged. An elegantly carved flight of stairs led to the first floor, which housed all the deities. Almost all the significant Indian deities were enshrined here in separate mini-temples, distinguished by their respective 'donate money' dropboxes and 'apna tika aapne aap lagao' powdered kumkum/ash circular containers. What intrigued me and K were the peaceful co-existence of fair and dark complexioned idols,which would have, back home, sharply demarcated the north and the south indian gods and goddesses. Here, they seemed to provoke equal devotion and perhaps (of course, I may be imagining it all), a sense of religio-cultural harmony.A huge queue patiently awaited the completion of the daily evening round of worship, so that they could partake of a bit of the sanctified water and the sacred flame and somewhat redeem the guilt of their absence from their native lands. We were particularly taken by a cordoned off area to the immediate left of the main entrance to the hall of worship, which for some obscure reason discouraged you for standing there purposelessly for too long by a warning sign. The unique feature of this spot was its arrangement of miniscule statuettes of all the major Indian deities in neat rows along a pyramidal set of shelves. Children, by the way, seemed to be having a field day, decked in their native dresses, which looked more like costumes on their settled-here parents. They ran about, laughing and shouting, from one corner of the huge hall to another, participating in improvised games and gimmicks. A wide variety of sacred Indian plants were on display along the landing just across from the staircase along with posters enumerating special rates for customised puja services and advertisements announcing the availablity of 'pure ghee laddoos' for prasad on the other side, where there seemed quite a crowd at a longish counter. The other thing that tickled me was K's elation at finding a goddess named 'Sridevi' to be the immediate neighbour of a goddess named 'Bhudevi'. He said that he had finally solved the mystery of the origin of the name Sridevi, which inspired immense mirth in my mind as it immediately reminded me of the actress who happens to be her namesake and her brilliant role in the classic film 'Mr India'. So much for religious ardour.

Back home at Somerville, Moumita was delighted to discover a huge and grotesque (if you ask me) Halloween showpiece across the road from our complex. It eerily resembled a few dead white men simultaneously and painfully trying to pirouette on a neon-orange basketball. I was glad she finally decided that it was more important to come indoors than stand in the bitter cold outside and admire that bizarre tableau. A Mexican family occupying one of the ground floor flats of our apartment seemed to have not quite ended an outdoor barbecue session and in fact, still toying around with the idea of spending the night outdoors planning the next day's menu, armed with beer bottles. We politely sidestepped them and ventured indoors to K's delicious ginger tea, Patel's namak paras (our kucho nimkis) and Stop N Shop oatmeal and raisin cookies. Moumita and I as usual, initiated our rounds of talking to the dozen and endless snacking in between (me leading the way), although K repeatedly reminded me of my hostly duties. Sabya Da was contented with his great find, a repetitive replay of 'Spiderman 2' while K was disgracefully rude and insisted on mixing business with pleasure by alternating rounds of abrupt car chatter with Sabya Da with office-related phone calls to a colleague and glimpses of spiderman mythology. We did not delay dinner too much as Moumita, Sabya Da and a could-do-without-it-candid K insisted on alleviating their hunger pangs with more food and less silly girly banter. So, Moumita and I and a very reluctant K got up to initiate the much awaited meal of the day.

Dinner turned oiut to be a wondrously successful affair. K's ghee bhaat/polau was much eulogised, especially since it had been his first attempt at the same as well as the fact that the birthday boy had been noble enough to volunteer to churn out a part of the grand feast himself. I personally think his voluntary participation in the process owed much to his secret terror of there being no main course at all, considering the average rate at which my culinary efforts had been progressing that day. Anyway, let's not be mean on this great day. My paneer and chicken also seemed to have elated the taste buds of our guests, who I strongly coerced into having second and even third helpings of, declaring that deeds spoke more than actions and hence, the proof of the pudding lay in the eating or something to that effect. The bithday boy was persuaded to initiate the desert round by savouring the shimayer payesh I had made a mess of, by using 2 cups of vermicelli for 4 cups of milk instead of 2 fistfuls. K however doggedly declared that he preferred the dense texture and was in seventh heaven owing to the generous quantities of almonds and raisins that I had scattered in the dish. Our guests naturally could either offer polite praise or even more polite silence. I really and conveniently can't recall which route they ultimately took. Photographs acccompanied the payesh-eating and after that, it was more gaiety and gossip until Moumita was horrified by the clock, which showed that it was past 11 pm. After that, it was the usual quick flurry of goodnights and takecares and time for bed.

P.S. Moumita later called me to announce that they had overeaten the delicious food and were glad that they had the entire next day, a Sunday, to digest all of it. I think we may safely say that it was a gay birthday party after all.

Now, about Sabya da's birthday. For starters, I was excited about two things - buying a gift and eating out at a proper Indian Chinese joint. K is never too enthusiastic about buying things for other people, since it involves the typical Libran problem of having to make a decision, which basically boils down to the uncertainty of whether 1) our liking would match the birthday victim's preference and 2) one would find something unique among the monotonous variety list that immediately jumps to one's mind after being invited to a close friend's birthday celebration. Basically, you know, I think K suffers from the thought of the perpetual horror of not being able to bypass the usual pen/ perfume/ paperback and zero in on something drastically original ( but never radical when it comes to K, unlike I, who prefer everything out of the way and three cheers for all things utilitarian).

After over 7 months of marriage, I know when to take things firmly into my control. I make the decisions and K makes the payment (that isn't a generalisation, by the's only now that I'm not working !). That way, both of us are happy. So, we walked into Rite Aid Pharmacy on the eve of Sabya Da's birthday to get him a gift. Yes, that's the best part. Pharmacies like Walgreens and RiteAid stock almost everything that you could possibly want in most daily life and yet, insist on being labelled a 'pharmacy'. The gift part wasn't too hard since I went for a multiple faceted Axe deospray,deostick and deo-bodywash combo that looked great and smelled even greater. The challenge was finding a card that would fit Sabya Da's personality, our aesthetic sensibilities and our budget, too. Some cards here are massively overpriced ( and I had once upon a time thought Archies' overpriced !). That too was overcome. The last obstacle involved finding a gift bag (it's easy when you want one for a girl/woman) that didn't look very feminine and yet looked festive enough to suit the occasion. Surprise surprise. We nailed that one down too. A beautifully simple royal blue marble paper cut into a bag shape. It was a totally different story that on reaching home I thought it didn't look grand enough after all and replaced it with a much more classy yellow wrapping paper gift bag I had bought a couple of glass decorations in at a yard sale on our Labour Day trip to New Hampshire. But after the whole affair, K seemed very relieved that we had found a good gift after all, which always seems the tough part to him (unlike the budget part, which is always a problem for me when it comes to buying a gift for others since I almost always end up exceeding the targeted amount).

The best part of Sabya Da's birthday was that Sabya Da could pick up both K and I me together that afternoon on his way to Moumita's office at New Brunswick en route Somerset Mews. K had showed signs of bowel irritability that day and I had promptly discouraged him from going to office that day AND attending a grand feast at night without my soothing domestic administrations in the form of a light breakfast, sweet nothings and a punctual lunch. The result was that he worked from home and enjoyed a sumptous dinner as well that night. I'm afraid I really spoil him with all this affection.

Moumita had had a hectic day at office, but that didn't deter her in the least from playing the perfect hostess that day and feeding us non-stop and consecutively with home-made lobongolotika, chaaler payesh and chicken strips accompanied by Ranch salad dressing and garlic pepper sauce. The payesh made me very happy as K had missed out on that on his own birthday, Mamoni telling me that it was the family tradition that that type of payesh be cooked only by someone motherly. Our snacking accompanied the watching of a particularly hilarious episode of 'Friends', which meant that we were having a great time.

Thanks to Moumita's force-feeding, we actually had to take a walk around the huge complex of Somerset Mews so that we could re-create some space in our quite-full stomachs to show respect to the much awaited dinner. ( Incidentally, that reminds me of an ironic point in Strindberg's 'Dream Play' where a rich man tells his wife that they should go out for a walk to work up an appetite while some starving coal miners are awed by the fact that while they have nothing to eat, other people need to exercise in order to eat more than they are capable of.) Turns out, we were rather hungry by the time we reached 'Chopsticks' in Edison. Which was the consequence of driving 15 mins to another 'Chopsticks', owned by the same people and finding, to our immense astonishment and annoyance, that it was closed and dark. Too late, we began to regret that we had not just taken the straight route (quite literally speaking) and had a Thai meal at 'Me Thai' just across the road from Somerset Mews ! Arriving at one restaurant that was open after all, so late at night (just 9.30 pm and we previously assumed that places closed early only in Kolkata) was rather cheering a chapter after a bad scare (not not having any dinner after all ) along our drive when a particularly ill-lit area had caused Sabya Da to miss a turn and swerve sharply.For a brief and bizarre moment, I thought I might be sharing a table with God after all. Our own version of One Night @ the Call Centre, perhaps. Sorry for underestimating your driving capabilities, Sabya Da. He managed to not lose his nerves and just make a rather abrupt U-turn to bring us (and the car) all back on track. The anticlimactic statement came from Moumita who declared that the tension of the situation had made her feel rather hungry.

'Chopsticks' was a decent affair. The interior was promisingly well-lit and cozily small with interesting lamps, Hindi film song videos playing on an overhead TV and small tables with neatly arranged routine jars of tomato ketchup, soya sauce and vinegar. A starter of chicken lollipops (less salt is synonymous with bland to me) worked up everyone for the main course of chicken chowmin, chicken fried rice and plain white rice with chilli fish and sweet-and-sour chicken. I preferred the chicken to the fish in terms of my own peculiar gastronomic sensations and can altogether agree to call it a great meal. Including Moumita and my tendency to devote considerable attention to the huge aquarium by our table, where Moumita was wonder-struck by a yellowish white fish that seemed to be blind and therefore, hitting its nose against the glass walls repeatedly at the same spot. I was more intrigued by a a couple of fish that seemed to have orange-black-white floral outgrowths having their source in their mouths. I have never seen anything quite like it before. Moumita tried to urge the yellow fish to go and jump the queue in the line that the fish seemed to be forming at a certain spot towards the surface, explaining that handicapped creatures always received privileges here (this country, I suppose she meant, which is quite true and noteworthy). Sabya Da was rather tickled by all the attentions she bestowed on the fish and tried to comfort her by saying that it had probably already had its dinner and was in the land of dreams. Moumita retorted that fish always slept with their eyes open, so that one couldn't be quite sure whether this one was doing at any point of time. Sabya Da must have been relieved when the bill was paid and we were ready to depart. Pisciculture doesn't seem to be his forte.

Moumita later called to say that she was sorry, Sabya Da kept on telling her that she should have been a better hostess and urged us to eat more at the restaurant. I noted that it was an invalid request, considering that our stomachs could only be expected to process a certain amount of food per day and her snacks had already filled most of it previously. So there.

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