The Saratogan Night Out

It is a dull day and I have a sore throat and I can see my sprightly neighbour do his bushy-tailed dance on the cable wires hanging outside the apartment. This squirrel scurries up and down the wires everyday. The first day I saw him I was worried. Was he stuck up there — trying to figure a way back to the sprawling greens across the road? But  sometimes you need to hear your thoughts out loud before you can fathom the ridiculous nature of them. Now having redone the apartment this morning feeling the call of hygge, having put away some extraneous details and arranged the leaves of autumn to lie artlessly around, some pine cones too, I have lit a candle which smells delicately of eucalyptus and mint. Good enough for me as I set out to write. I wanted to take you further into the heart of the beautiful Cornish villages in Britain till I felt the urge to tell you about my weekend which was eventful for someone who likes to huddle in a couch with a book or binge watch shows on the telly.

I was going to do just that — read Diana Gabaldon and swoon with comfort food ordered up in my hotel room this weekend – when Adi would hear none of it. I could not be sitting alone in a hotel room on a Friday night and he be partying. Woeful by any measure, he declared. We had driven up to the former spa town of Saratoga Springs in New York which is home to Adi’s boss. Now Boss Man has decided to fly the nest of his present firm for greener pastures. His colleagues naturally grew misty-eyed and threw a fond farewell party at a dimly-lit taproom that was the picture of distressed chic. Exposed brick walls, textured ceiling, Edison bulbs, sepia-toned photos hung upon the walls, the hubble-bubble of men and women.

As the evening matured with alcohol, cheese and laughter, it turned out that I would be the only woman in a group of five men because the female colleague decided to (intelligently enough) leave early. Over red wine, platters of salami, manchego and blue cheese, I was learning about the kind of life I have only read about and gleaned from conversations with a Swedish chef who I had interviewed a few years ago in a hip Shoreditch restaurant in London. The chef lives in the wild inaccessible forests of the province of Jämtland in Sweden, forages for vegetables, lichen and berries, and hunts every piece of meat he puts out on the menu. Naturally he has been acing lists of foodies who have taken the trouble of reaching his outpost in the great outdoors. I would like to experience it except for the thought of a cow’s substantial femur being sawed out before my eyes as live theatre and the prospect of being presented with the contents of the marrow — makes the bones judder. Not Adi’s though. He has stressed over and over again that he is up for it.

To get back to the evening at hand, one of Adi’s colleagues shares a similar outlook of life as the Swedish chef. This guy lives on a remote piece of land, about 300 acres of it under his ownership, in the woods near the Canadian border. There where towns by the name of Bombay turn up, named for ‘Indian princesses’ who migrated there from the city of Bombay in India, and where his neighbours are Native Americans in a reservation noted for gambling (here he interjected the conversation with, ‘one of my friends from the tribe was arrested lately for driving around the area with $500,000 stashed into the car’) — this chap lives off the land. He hunts for big game and fishes in the lake nearby to put food on the plate for his family of two toddlers and wife. He showed me a photo of the wife proudly holding aloft a fish that must have spanned 4ft. at the least.

Every bit of food is accounted for and nothing is wasted. In the last week or two he has been out hunting moose, but they are elusive creatures and live high on the mountains, usually it is just deer. His grandfather liked hunting for bears because he liked bear meat. All I could think of was:

A sweet, innocent, harmless, leaf-eating, doe-eyed little deer. … Imagine you’re a deer. You’re prancing along, you get thirsty, you spot a little brook, you put your little deer lips down to the cool clear water… BAM! A fucking bullet rips off part of your head! Your brains are laying on the ground in little bloody pieces! Now I ask ya. Would you give a fuck what kind of pants the son of a bitch who shot you was wearing?’ The Marisa Tomei monologue in the rip-roaring My Cousin Vinny. Yes, you got it.

BM reached out for his hunting colleague’s neck and patted it saying sardonically, ‘You are meeting the quintessential redneck.’ In this world where we obsess over politically correct terms, our friend from the woods was least bothered by any of it. He was just quietly confident about the kind of life he leads. ‘I eat what I kill, I know where my food comes from and I do not hunt for pleasure,’ he told me simply.

Later after two glasses brimming with red wine, I was ready to call it a night. But when you are with the guys, you gotta develops guts of steel, and do what the men do. Drink. We tripped down to a bourbon bar. I drank endless glasses of water – so much so that the two bartenders ended up replacing my glass as soon as they saw me without one — and the men luxuriated with their measures of golden bourbon. There I heard the life stories of the male bartender with the silver nose stud and of the tattooed initials of his little boy who had died early of an infection, the female bartender who can do just about four shots of tequila in a night, watched people enter the loo in twos, an irate bearded bouncer hot on their tail, and had my forearms examined by a jockey to determine if I had the makings of a horsewoman…evidently not.

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Chasing Pasties and Pubs in Looe

During an Easter break in 2015, we arrived at a Victorian cottage called Sunnybank, positioned high above the village of Looe, upon a hilly road. It was in the late hours of  night when we reached it and yet we were stumped by the quaint prettiness of the village strung together by festive fairy lights, the sound of the sea in the backdrop crashing against the rocks and emphasising upon the solitude of our cottage. In the morning, we found the windows of the living room opening out to views of the sea one side, and on the other, rows of cottages clinging to the sides of cliffs in a higgledy-piggledy manner. The river Looe split the town into East Looe and West Looe, and while it remained dry for the best part of the day, tidal waters would stream in through an inlet and the boats would start bobbing prettily. On the harbour stood the bronze sculpture of a one-eyed seal called Nelson who had adopted it as home for about 25 years. Here Nelson had lived a full life, entertaining locals with his antics and sunning himself upon the rocks, till he died in 2003.

In the village of Nelson the seal, we were in the more bustling quarter of East Looe. Everyday we would trudge up a steep road to our cottage from the network of streets below  — where pubs such as Smugglers Cote and Ye Olde Jolly Sailor livened up things with stories of smuggling and privateering. While sitting at the Smugglers’ Cote one morning, we heard about an old tunnel that was discovered there, which lead all the way to the fishing quay.

A story goes that the landlady of Ye Olde Jolly Sailor hid a contraband keg beneath her petticoats during a sudden raid and knitted away with poise as her quarters were searched. Almost 20 per cent of the government’s excise duty was lost through smuggling and yet the Cornish smuggled away with impunity for the simple reason that they knew that the excise men from London were five days away by stagecoach from Cornwall.

There are no smugglers today though – just shark anglers, who operate on a policy of catching and releasing the shark, and avid crabbers. We did not catch shark angling, but we did notice little girls and their fathers crabbing away at the river while we hunted for ice creams and cakes.

To make the stomach rumble, because that is what holidays are meant for, we had a host of pasty shops to choose from. Bacon, cheese and leek; potato and leek; onion and pickle; steak and stilton… Life is pasty-some in Looe. You could lunch like a miner and feel rum about it. There are a smattering of creperies, Thai restaurants, cafés and bakeries too if you overdo the pasty aspect of the holiday. The idea for us was to eat our way through town and if we felt the need for more (which I always do), there was a bookshop up a hill where the books were beautiful, their pages yellowed by time, and the wonderful welcome smell of nostalgia hitting the right notes as you entered the shop. It was a treasure house of tomes — that old shop. The lady who sat at the till always had time for a natter, sharing notes on out-of-the-way authors like Anne Radcliffe who could infuse her tales with the supernatural effortlessly…why Radcliffe you might ask, because she is not quite popular, is she? Jane Austen poked fun at the tenor of Radcliffe’s Gothic novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’, if you remember. But the lady of the shop had written books on Radcliffe, as it turned out, and I was not about to pull an Austen on her. Plus I had found myself engaged by Radcliffe’s brand of electrifying novels which are difficult to lay aside even for a second.

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River Looe
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East and West Looe on either side of the river
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The cottage that was ours that Easter

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Crabbing
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Nelson, the one-eyed seal

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Pub fish pie 

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For you, Jen

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Pasty tasting
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The only one who had a good swim in the icy waters of the sea

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After days of mooching around the narrow alleys of Looe, exploring the other nearby villages of Polperro, Mevagissey and Fowey, solving puzzles lying around at Sunnybank, on our last night in Looe, we spent time on the sandy stretch of beach beneath a sky riddled with stars. Here smugglers would have unloaded their contraband goods decades ago. Off its coast stood the dark outline of Looe Island where goods used to be discreetly dumped too. I could picture it. The silhouette of a ship as it pulled in with 400-500 men on board – but mooring a little away from the shore. Then smaller boats would have been sent out to the beach with booties of brandy, rum and gin, men scurrying nimbly to get their goods under the cover of the night. And to the fervent mind came Rudyard Kipling’s ‘A Smuggler’s Song’

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,

Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,

Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.

Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

To Daphne’s Fowey

The Cornish landscape in my mind is branded with swashbuckling smugglers, hidden coves, stormy seas and vast swathes of moors, ever since I got sucked into the vortex of Daphne du Maurier’s world. How tales of smuggling fill the imagination with romantic connotations.

Time has a habit of standing still in England’s south western county of Cornwall. The towns and villages retain a vibe of simplicity. This is how it must have been in the old days, you think, as you hear stories of fishing and smuggling that go hand in hand with the narrow, cobbled lanes of these hilly outposts of the Cornish southeast quarter.

Yet the picture was bleak during the 18th century when an economic crisis had Britain in its grips because it was fighting the American War of Independence, and in the scheme of things, taxes were at an all-time high in the country. Quality salt, key to preserving pilchards in the fishing communities of Cornwall, and which was imported from Brittany and Spain was taxed heavily. Three hundred miles from Westminster, the scene was ripe for smuggling. It turned into a way of life for an entire community — vicars and teachers included.

A sparkling summer’s day of ice cream, coffee and a soul-satisfying breakfast in a café in Fowey was the perfect foil to my daydreams on a bank holiday weekend in 2015. Adi and I were on a four-day break with friends in the traditional fishing town of Looe near Fowey, putting up in a Victorian cottage, which is matter for another post.

Fowey itself is a picture painted with coves, old-fashioned country cottages trailing up and down steep roads, country churches and smart boutiques where prices make the eyebrows touch the scalp. We trawled the length and breadth of it, mooching around bookshops, (me) sighing over pretty ornaments in shops and Adi conveniently turning a deaf ear to those sighs. Nearby is the picturesque Readymoney Cove above which sits a former coach house. Daphne had sought refuge there during WWII to sort out her messed up life. You see, her husband was away at war setting up the country’s first airborne division, while she was taken in by a couple in Hertfordshire. But the fly in the ointment was Daphne herself. She was caught in an embrace with the husband of her hostess. Stories of unbearable loneliness, turbulent emotions, heartache…

Later after we had explored its nook and corners, we sat by the harbour. The waters hypnotised us under the mellow rays of the afternoon sun. Dangling my legs from the brick walls of the old harbour, I watched the machinations of ancient Fowey – bold gulls swooping across the estuary while wailing above our heads – as pretty coloured boats chugged in. And I thought of the young Daphne whose whitewashed cottage stood across the river. The 19-year-old who had noted fervently in her diary: ‘All I want is to be at Fowey. Nothing and no one else.’

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The pretty turquoise roofs and spires of Truro on the way to Fowey
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Curious residents of villages around Truro
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Fowey Parish Church
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To Readymoney Cove 
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The harbour

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Daphne’s cottage across the estuary. The one with the bright blue door.

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Northampton in Fragments

The lingering smell of must has to be one of the most ghastly smells out there. I could make a list of the ones that get my goat but here’s one that aces the list. Since morning I have been trying to rid my hands of the must from a malodorous dish scrubber – with generous dabs of lavender soap and cream – yet the whiff of it. As Italians sum up such emotional situations in two voluble words, mamma mia… enough of my diatribes, I should get on with collecting my thoughts and putting them down here before the must of time takes over them.

Like that cold and grey day in early 2013 when we stepped into the fresh market square of Northampton. The prelude to it was a warning from Adi: ‘Northampton does not have much going for it’. Now the joy of my life has a tendency to undersell places. When I went to Lincoln with him, he had warned me similarly. That there was nothing much to it till I chanced upon the cathedral city that can live only in a quaint English dream. The crux of it is that busy as he gets with work, he leaves it to me to be his eyes and ears until he finds time to double up as my fellow explorer.

The wind was whistling in our ears when we saw the rows of stalls in the ancient market square of Northampton with their stripy red and white awnings selling fresh vegetables, aromatic coffee beans, books, antique somethings, sizzling reindeer meat, hot dogs and burgers all coming together to add the perfect sensory touch to that day when we were shivering under the onslaught of an icy wind, the lingering aromas of meat frying luring us for a bite. The butcher on his podium hawked slabs of meat over the microphone.

The beauty of the old square lay in the traditional way of tending to business. The grocers engaging you in banter, my favourite of the lot being the bespectacled grocer with his shock of white hair and hair sprouting out of his ears, going about his job with plain ol’ vocal cords at his disposal, no microphone needed there. ‘Strawberries for 2 pounds, come ladies and gents, come one, come all’… stuff like that. The boom of it reached your ears across the far end of the square. During the course of our many conversations in the future it would turn out that he was a travelling hawker who put up in Travelodge hotels around the various counties. I had never met a travelling grocer before.

Then there was the woman rustling up spicy noodles in a food truck by the square – who eventually became a friend, announcing with pride to her customers – that why ‘here is my writer friend’; the white-haired man with the stoop, one of the noodle guzzlers, executing the funkiest jigs you have seen and appropriately dubbed ‘Dancing Joe’; clumps of teenage boys and girls dressed in Goth make-up, funky hair dos in place and wearing ominously long leather coats, kings and queens of darkness perchance in their own heads; the 18th century Shipman’s Pub in The Drapery famed for its in-house poltergeist; bunches of men holding their pints, spilling out of The Auctioneer pub in the market square. And capping the bustle of it, the small turquoise dome of All Saints’ Church at one end of town.

Northampton on that day was engaging.

I remember turning to Adi and exclaiming, ‘Whatever did you mean?!’ Anyway, we scouted a few beautiful houses and started putting together home in a condominium about five minutes’ walk away from the town centre – the central delight of it was that we could see the spires of four churches from our cosy living room. The one right in front was the spire of the round church, one of the few left in England and a legacy of the first earl of Northampton after he had returned from his crusades in the 1100s. Where I wandered around in the cemetery one evening, a disgruntled Adi in tow because he does not get my fascination for reading epitaphs and found a particular commemoration that made me go misty-eyed.

‘..et a little while and all shall be fu…

And then we shall meet our beloved who is gone before.’

There I became a recluse, learnt to find bliss in my own company and my lover’s, and yet made some unlikely friends. The concierge who sat at the entrance to our building who prompted me to take Adi for a run too because he liked pumping iron himself, the guys at Costa Coffee who along with coffee handed out words of kindness for my changing hair styles (in those days I was experimenting with a pixie look with gusto), the golf shop owner near the park where I jogged and who executed a little salute as I ran past his shop, the joggers with whom I shared the perimeter of the park’s soothing green stretch, irrespective of the season. Soon we had a group of friends with whom we partied in Wetherspoon every weekend almost for a year till we were wrung out of energy and the band gradually dispersed. But oh what stories came out of those nights – the kinds that would make my mother do double flips. If one can execute those out of alarm.

So many memories couched in the town of cobblers. Where I came upon the famed shoe makers and their old factories quite late into our stay. In fact, the first time we set eyes upon the fine leather shoes of Northampton was in the Swedish city of Malmö where we both fell in hopeless love with their expert craftsmanship. It was hopeless because we did not buy them. The price had to match the skill that reflected off the leather pairs – they started somewhere above £800. Yet there it was. A piece of home in Sweden.

And here we are miles and miles across the Atlantic, trying not to be overwhelmed by the preoccupation of fitting in. Not letting the memories of Northampton go because how can you and why should you let go of home, your first home together, quite so easily. It is a cacophony of emotions, you realise, that descend upon you when you travel. As one of the best writer-bloggers I know, Osyth puts it, ‘the world is a double-edged sword for those of us that travel it a little or a lottle’.

As I carry on with the business of life, moulding myself to this environment that slowly grows upon me, I leave you with a few (sometimes grainy) images of Northampton which holds my heart in its clutches.

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In silhouette: The cupola of All Saints’
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The haunted pub which has shut down now. It used to be a place of frantic poultergeist activity. One of its owners/managers, Harry Franklin, about a hundred years ago had slit his own throat and bled to death. Poor Harry was discovered after a week. His spirit was said to have chucked pints off the counter. We did not meet Harry. Adi did a Scooby Doo on me.

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The Racecourse
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Nights out with the crazy gang in Wetherspoon 
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Primping up for New Year’s Eve
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The Victorian poorhouse that stood encased in an ivied, abandoned quietness across us.
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Catching clouds from our window
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The round church from our window
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The round church of Simon de Senlis
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The market square
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Sights from the Northampton Music Festival
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Reflections of the Guildhall
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All Saints’ Church on an evening when hot air balloons speckled the sky
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Intricately carved cupola and All Saints’ 
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The Wig & Pen, the other haunted pub in town
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When fairs came to town and left us giddy
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Halloween parties
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…and birthdays
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The Brutalist piece of architecture that was eventually demolished with great fanfare: you can see just the blue roof of it, the old Greyfriars Station. There cannot have been a more depressing bus station as this.
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The day it was brought down billowing clouds of dust hung heavy above town.
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Chinese New Year

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The old man with the flowery hat roamed around with his shopping trolley, quoting Hamlet.
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Spring days looked thus
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Pimms and English summers
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Abington Park
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Coveted buys at old book shops 
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Conversations with shaggy residents of pastures by the Nene
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By the River Nene
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When the world turned white outside
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I found bliss in baking chocolate walnut cakes…
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…rosemary foccaccia
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pecan pies
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…and boozy Christmas cakes

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I have missed out many memories and places and people, and yet there it is, years of our life fitted into a long drawn-out post, as if tucked into one scrapbook for life.

These Autumnal Days of Sudden Beauty

It has been a warm September. Every time that I walked to the nearest stores, which are admittedly 10 blocks away, I felt my pores opening up to the heat, trickles of perspiration coursing down the back. But yesterday, unexpectedly, there was a nip in the air. A beautiful evening had finally arrived. All I could do was bask in its breezy charm, let the breeze ruffle my hair and alongside rush through the rows of trees towering over me as it spoke to my senses in some strange tongue. Psithurism. Sonic and haunting. If there is heaven, it is to be found in the music of nature. In the gushing of that brook, in the breeze that ripples through canopies, in the ebb and tide of the waves…

Houses flanking the blocks with tamed and untamed patches of gardens, the ones matted with tangled ivy catching the eye because there is a certain something about wild overgrown beauty. The occupants of many house fronts: pointy-hatted witches, ghouls and skeletal figures swaying behind fences, a few macabre grins, autumnal wreaths in hues of gold, orange and russet upon doors, porches with autumnal leaves twirled around the balustrades. My kind of porch, I thought.

And then just like that, as I was strolling past an old rundown bakery, peering into windows scrawled with ‘try our cheese and nutella twists’, the feeling clamped down upon me. An intense wave of longing for the autumnal embrace of Northampton. The Racecourse, that sprawling park (you see it in all the shots) where I gathered leaves by the dozen every autumn, watched the seasons change in slow motion, where the trees were my beloved friends, where around this time the fallen leaves gather on the jogging path and trip merrily in the wind like children gone wild on a picnic, where the blustery wind threatens to rip the ponytail off your head as you run the length of its winding paths.

Below are the changes of season in The Racecourse which sprawls sublimely over 118 acres. How the scenes of life play out differently now from what it did centuries ago when cattle grazed upon its green vastness — a bucolic thought given that during the mid-1700s and 1800s it was the chosen spot for public executions. Convicts were brought over to the heath – that is now the park – in carts after they were allowed a last drink at the Bantam Cock pub a few miles off in Abington. In time, the gallows made way for recreational race meets before they were brought to a halt in 1904 after a fatal accident. Its final avataar was that of an army base and barracks during the two world wars before it was transformed into a refuge for pleasure seekers.

You would think that were might be dark memories clinging to the leaves. Yet it does not feel like the kind of place that holds onto disturbing memories. It is the stomping grounds of little girls and boys training in football, families armed with blankets and picnic baskets during summer, teenagers roller skating with abandon, school boys and girls romancing each other under the boughs of those trees, big and small dogs sizing each other up as they patter around with great solemnity, and the ubiquitous cyclists and runners. On the 5th of November, every year, when the Yeomen of the Guard search the Houses of Parliament in London ceremonially for whiffs of gunpowder-laden plots, in Northampton Guy Fawkes night is the occasion for a great bonfire on the green, hot drinks for shivering enthusiastic residents and fireworks beneath a star-laden sky.

There is a dragon too who lies half asleep at one end of the park as if in wait that someone should say those magic words, ‘Dra…’. Shush. Meanwhile if you keep running down the straight path, at the other edge of the park is a disused tram shelter and The White Elephant. From across the road, this pub taunts the hapless jogger with the wondrously warm smell of pizzas baking away in its wood-fired ovens. Now seasons may come and seasons may go, my friend, but that remains a given on Friday nights throughout the year.

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In the Dreams of a Boatman…

…were couched the beginnings of a 250-year-old tradition in the family I was born into. That of worshipping the goddess Durga. Ma Durga as we call her in West Bengal. Ma as in mother, the beginning of everything that is good on this planet, in every species. Even crocodiles and snakes (ophiophilists, don’t you dare fling a cobra at me).

Durga is the warrior goddess who slays evil and preserves peace by combatting with the ashura, the demon in Hindu mythology. And she is not modest, okay? How could she be, this 10-armed goddess who multi-tasks effortlessly as only a woman can. In the Rig Veda, one of her aliases Devi is noted to have remarked, ‘I am the Queen, the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship…’

For Bengalis, and most of the eastern part of India, her arrival brings with it a celebration that lasts for days. Five at the least. When the number of days perchance decrease, there is a sea made up of ripples of melancholic faces.

What! To be shortchanged thus? Lesser number of days off from work, the chance to show off new clothes acquired for each day and most importantly the opportunity to do pet pujo. Pet is stomach in English and pujo is worship. You get the crux of the matter and where I come from with my bottomless-well kind of appetite.

Roads and alleys are blocked off in the city of Calcutta for the hundreds of community pandals, temporary pavilions, that emerge all over the city, each vying with the other for greater glory. There are various interpretations of the goddess therefore, some staggeringly flamboyant. Once they even had a Harry Potter theme which made my eyes boggle. Sheer genius of someone’s imagination to inject fantasy with more fantasy. It is the one sight that will be imprinted on your mind for a long, long time if you visit the city during Durga Pujo. In a good way. There is bloody chaos, because it is India, what do you expect? Yetin that chaos you shall find peace by gaping at the many reincarnations of Durga around every corner, plethora of street food that will make you go ‘aah’ (with supreme gastronomic pleasure) and ‘ooh’ (the stomach shall inevitably protest) and more food yet in the many classic eateries in the city. If the world eats to live, Bengalis do it the other way around.

Then there are family pujos which are smaller affairs but filled with intricate details that you will miss out at the community ones. That’s where my family comes in.

Years and years ago, as I mentioned at the outset, when East Bengal was still East Bengal, before partition happened when they were dispossessed of their lands and it was named Bangladesh, generations of my ancestors (both my father and mother’s folks) lived there. My father’s and one of my great (I do not know how many times great because my father is the one well-versed with the family tree) grandfathers’ boatmen dreamt of a goddess. As irreverent as I am, I often wondered if he had smoked a few spliffs, but then in his defence, the man did locate the goddess who apparently appeared in his dreams.

A tiny idol of Annapurna made of ashtadhatu (eight metals – an amalgamation of gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, tin, iron and mercury) was recovered by him from a certain spot that was revealed to him in the vision. Annapurna is the goddess of nourishment (she who wants you to be well fed always) and Durga personified. The boatman passed on the idol to his employer, my ancestor, who started this ritual of worshipping Durga on his land. Unknowingly he had started a legacy that has tempered the outlook of so many generations of my family after him.

Now the pujo is rotated among three family members – two of my father’s cousins and my father. Last year I flew back to Calcutta because my parents who are ageing away at a meteoric pace were sure it would be their last time celebrating it at home. ‘You never know,’ they said, and as much as it hurts, it is the inevitable truth of life I suppose.

As a child, I would wake up early and gather flowers in my skirt from beneath our trees. Some wild purple and white ones, blood-red hibiscus and then mounds of shiuli, the night-flowering jasmine. I would knit garlands out of those pretty night jasmine with their coral center and stems for presenting to the goddess. Then fast for the offering-of-flowers ritual that happened with chantings of shlokas by the family priest during the latter half of the mornings. I would sin by sneaking food into my library room from the kitchen during those times when I was supposed to fast, little orbs of goodness made up of coconut, sugar and milkmaid. Then noons of dressing up and escaping the family to spend time with friends at pandals where the young and beautiful flock together to observe each other with a gimlet eye. And day and night of feasting on delicious Bengali food that comes to an end with the final/10th day of the pujo when we immerse the goddess into the river.

That is when the entire family – the very old and babies barred – we all pile up into a large lorry and rumble down the roads with Durga and her sons and daughters and demon and chant, ‘Aschhe bochhor abar hobe‘ (roughly translated, ‘the following year she shall be here again’) before we slide her gently into the waters of the Hooghly and douse our grief with food, but of course. A feast that kicks off with giant fried sweets, followed up with plenty of fish cooked in mustard, mounds of rice, mouthwatering range of veggies and chutneys.

Autumn for me is the arrival of this festive air. It steals in upon me, arrival of the goddess when the breeze softens, when the skies put on their dreamy blue veil, the merest hint of winter in the air and the long white grass we call kaash phool, a sort of perennial white grass which sways in the wind with immeasurable softness and grace. As much of a non-believer as I am, I bask in the goodness of it because what would life be without traditions. As witty Whitman had declared without a trace of shame: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

Today I feel a throb for my childhood home. For everything that is so far away. Oceans away. Instead of looking for the nearest pandal in Jersey City, I cook and celebrate this feeling because it is my way to celebrate – plus I feel this terrible sense of ennui weighing me down in strange pandals where I have to idly natter with people because I have to, invain attempts to recreate the glories of home. That can never be.
When night comes we shall tuck into biryani (slow-cooked rice, potatoes and meat) – I was jumping for hours today morning trying to calm down an agitated fire alarm and I am surprised she did not drone on about curry instead of fire – and I shall reminisce to Adi who has not seen Durga Pujo in her one true home, Calcutta, for the nth time: ‘You have no idea what you are missing out on. It is legendary.’
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Last year’s avataar of Ma Durga at home
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Cotton soaked in ghee is lit in 108 small brass pots by women to symbolise the destruction of evil during Sandhi Pujo when 108 lotuses are also offered to the goddess alongside.
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Kola bou. Banana Bride. She is the consort for Ganesha, the god whose elephant trunk you can spy in the backdrop. Autumn is the time for harvest so people, particularly peasants, worship the many bounties of Mother Earth.
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Sentimentalism: Home is where the heart is

Bums, Beauties, Boy Scouts and Sentimental Rockwell

Two old biddies man the desk at the entrance to the Norman Rockwell museum. Shivering and nattering for it was a cold morning, the morning after it had rained incessantly the day before, and you know how it always feels colder inside these old buildings sans heating.

Down Route 4, a two-lane highway snakes its way through Rutland marking its way through the green mountains that lead you to Killington. On the sidelines of that scenic route dotted by its plethora of old and colourful houses, you spot a signage with foliage creeping up its feet announcing the presence of the museum. Rockwell lived an hour from here in the ‘heart of the shires’ in between the towns of Manchester and Bennington, in a small community called Arlington that sits upon the banks of the river Batten Kill. Southwestern Vermont, to be not so precise. ‘Now my pictures grew out of the world around me, the everyday life of my neighbors,’ Rockwell had remarked upon his move to the quiet town.

Rockwell is possibly the best known of all the artists that America would have sprung upon the world in the 20th century. The native New Yorker who was born in the late 1800s to a family that in his own words was ‘substantial, well to do, character and fortunes founded on three generations of wealth’ – Rockwell had an epiphany early on about his calling in life. He drew and drew because it took his mind off his ‘narrow shoulders, long neck, and pigeon toes’. By the age of 18, he had a full-time job of illustrating for magazines. Boy scouts and covers for the Saturday Evening Posts were probably the most important themes that his artwork revolved around in the initial years.

When this New Yorker moved to Vermont did it mean that he started painting the brilliant autumnal colours of the New England vista that unfurled before his eyes, before his very windows? Nah. It was the mid-40s when he had made the move, the crucial WWII years during which the artist painted his iconic work ‘Four Freedoms’ based upon the ideals of freedom. To speak, to worship, liberation from fear, from want. Yet he portrayed them through the common man. His neighbours. Their rituals. Scenes from an average American life and the great American dream. Those are the scenes that wooed me as I walked in ultra-slow motion through the two wings of the building, chuckling with the man and his subjects, for even though there is humour in spades there, it is gentle. For sneers do not melt the butter and empathy with your subjects can only endear you to the reader/viewer.

And then Adi, who within half an hour had zoned out, wanting to break out already into the arms of the day that was slowly brightening up under the rays of a reluctant sun. In museums, they should reserve a room for those who want to nap or take a break, don’t you think? I would safely deposit Adi there and spend hours basking in the glow of art till my brain hollers for a break. Till I start to feel the pricking of, as Emily Dickinson so aptly wrote, ‘a Funeral, in my Brain’. Adi had at any rate got there before me. But then the fates conspired with my husband. A busload of Russian tourists took over the museum and they refused to give way. Loquacious. Loud. Funeral in the brain alright. Scuttle. Unwillingly.

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Scouting is Outing. Original oil painting for ‘Boy Scout’ calendar, 1968.
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Fireman. Original oil painting for ‘Post’ cover, May 27, 1944.
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The Tattoo Artist. Original oil painting for ‘Post’ cover, March 4, 1944.

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Still Good. Original oil painting for advertisement for Interwoven socks, 1927.
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Triple Self-Portrait. Original oil painting for ‘Post’ cover, February 13, 1960.
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Thanksgiving (The Glutton). Original oil painting for ‘Life’ cover, November 22, 1923.
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Homecoming G.I. Original oil painting for ‘Post’ cover, May 26, 1945.

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Shall this museum, a small repository of Rockwellian memories, survive the passage of time? You see it is up for sale, and on the agenda of a father and son duo from Vermont eyeing it is a dispensary doling out medical marijuana. Life is a tale told by an idiot and you know the bard is never wrong.