Babies! Babies EVERYWHERE!

1 August 2015

Being a woman of a certain age—okay, okay, early thirties, with mid sliding in faster than I’d like—it’s inevitable that I have become an aunty to several children several times over. “My” first child was a bump before I realized what that bump meant, when her proud mother sailed in, stomach out in a flattering black dress that disguised that bump from long range viewing until you got very close and you could see that barrier between the two of you. 
Scary things, babies.

I’m always struck by that perfect physical metaphor of contrast—the bump, the baby curled up within is indeed a barrier—the few layers of skin and sinew and beyond that a hollow, a womb, a receptacle where human life is growing rapidly, day by day, it may as well be an ocean for what the mother is experiencing and for what you on the other side cannot. And then there are the expressions on their faces when they take your palm and slide it gently to the base of their stomachs so you can feel the little ripple of a baby kick, so much greater on the inside than to me, the casual observer.

And then the babies themselves emerge, at first meeting not very impressive at all—they’re so small, so curled up into themselves like they want to return to where they came from. They make smacking noises with their mouths and they cry ineffectually and they’re soothed by whoever knows what to do in that situation. Six months later, and they’re a completely different kind of beast, alert and awake and alive and sitting up and reaching out and you wonder, “Was I ever like this? Did I ever find mystery in a fob of keys or just watching a new someone’s face as they enter a room? When was the last time I felt so motivated to rise up, to stand on my own two legs and when I fell to get up again and keep going until the standing became as natural a part of me as breathing?”

Here’s what happens though, when you’re on the other side of that barrier, the velvet rope keeping them in and us out: your lives change. Not just that of your friend’s, but also of yours. You start to juggle schedules in a way you never had to before, not even if your friend worked a punishing job, because even jobs have a weekend. You drift away for the first three months, unable to identify with that shattered expression that comes from sleepless nights, that lack of concentration when you’re in the middle of one of your best stories. You begin to learn to ask about a new person each time you check in with your friend: how are you? And how is baby? And finally, maybe, how is husband or life partner?

You learn to socialize in a different way. You learn to lower your voice at nap time, you learn to pat a small, sleeping being on his back as he finally goes to sleep. You hold a two year old on your lap, reading to him as his parents potter around you, responding to his endless questions with a patience you didn’t realize you possessed. You learn to ask the right questions. You respond to “Aunty,” until the child is old enough to form your name on his or her own and then you respond to whatever version of your name comes out of her mouth. You try not to be insulted when the child of someone you love very much declines your affections.

Then too, you make new friends. These are the people you run into at cocktail parties, the people you’ve been saying you “must meet” for some time, and now when you’re all on the other side of that rope, you have more in common than you realized. With them, you talk about men and work and you enjoy long, leisurely evenings with no one having to go home until they actually get sleepy.  You open the second bottle of wine. You don’t have to tell everything in one meeting, because you know your next won’t be that far away, since your schedules match. You enjoy the company of these new people, banded together as you are, thirty something and childfree.

You say “childfree” instead of “childless.”

And then, like they’re coming home from a long voyage, your parent friends return. You start to get text messages, phone calls, invitations to see them again, and you go, and it’s not the same, it’s never going to be the same, but it’s deeper. You have so much you want to say, and they do too, and you’re in a place with your new friends and your old ones, and the barrier’s almost down and you can see into this party that everyone’s having without you, and you can smile and say, “Thanks for inviting me.” 

(A version of this appeared as my column on

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How to travel with Facebook: Huffed at by elephants, screamed at by monkeys

29 July 2015

I want to tell you the last story first: we had just returned from dinner and were using our phone torches to climb up the small hill back to our cottage. It was pitch black and in the night we heard the crickets and the rustling, and then we heard a great big crash. Instantly, we both paused. The sound had come from fairly near us, but we still couldn't see beyond our feet. "Might be monkeys," I said, giggling nervously and she said nothing, only began walking again, and this time the noise grew closer, it made a HMPHH and it was above our heads and everywhere, and then there was a trumpet, and she said in low urgent tones, "RUN!" and we turned around and ran and the next morning we saw the trample marks not quite two feet away from where we had been, so close to being killed by wild elephants, driven to our hill by dynamite on the hills above us, chasing them away from the villager's crops.
Who lives somewhere pretty I can come visit for week?

Come see me. 

Okay! What shall we do? 

Swim in the river, go for treks, eat organic vegetarian food, read. 
My friend teaches at a school near Kodaikanal. It's a small school student-body-wise, only 60 students, but it has acres and acres of land, and the kids are taught to work with their hands, growing their own veggies, building bridges and houses and furniture, being One with Nature. They were all away for their break, so it was just us and a handful of other teachers on campus, but up in her quarters, it was just us and two cats--one the sweetest little kitlet you ever did see.
I spent a lot of time cuddling this kitten, but I also read four, five, six, seven books, sometimes more in one afternoon. My friend fell ill and so for two days, I stayed completely housebound, but we had no food because we hadn't picked any veggies, and the cats--wild, feral cats who developed a yen for boiled eggs and milk--yowled at me for their dinner so I explored the village looking for something and only came home with milk powder which they rejected with insulted looks on their faces.
There's something amazing about eating the food you grow. The avocado and the limes were from the school garden which went into our guacamole, we made egg salad sandwiches using chives and parsley and hot red chillis picked from a bush outside the kitchen, and the same red chillis went into a potato vindaloo I cooked with red rice. We'd sit out at night, the dim solar bulb barely lighting up our silhouettes, and we'd chat about everything: Delhi which she left behind, the school she joined, books we were reading, and when we grew tired we'd go to bed at ten pm and wake up at 7.30 the next day and begin again. Perhaps it's not everyone's idea of a vacation--the slow just-being of sitting still and reading and being in a place where everything stuns you with the green and the clean air and the food you're eating and the kitten you're holding captive, so soft! And after a while, your phone runs out of charge because solar power needs a converter to produce electricity and so you get used to using your phone for about 2 hours a day if you're lucky, but mostly you just sit or walk or plan your next meal, and it's not exciting but it's good.
Maybe I'm growing old, but I need a recharge every now and then. Thanks to the internet, I've figured out I'm an extroverted introvert, and so for all the socialising I do, I need time to just plug myself in and not talk to anyone and just enjoy the silence in my head. That way, her being sick was a two day meditation for me, I only spoke when she emerged from her bedroom for tea, and then I went back to being quiet and alone and meditative.

It was only seven days that I went away after all, I realised on the plane home, but it was enough. Fully charged, the battery bar above my head maxed out. I came home ready to meet people again, ready to deal with shit, and it's been a good few weeks for me at home too--I finished writing another book, a YA one called Split, about a girl whose parents are getting divorced but also about so much more than a girl whose parents are getting divorced. I have TWO books out this year, can you believe it? Book four and book five--approximately in September and November, and I can't wait to have all of you read them and tell me what you think because it's been seven years since my first book came out, and I am able to accept compliments and criticism, and you know what? I have an open invitation to go back to the hills, and to the school whenever it all gets too much.

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Aarushi by Avirook Sen, a review & a cold case totally solved

20 July 2015

I found out about Avirook Sen’s Aarushi while I was on holiday in the hills of Tamil Nadu last week. Saying a thankful prayer to technology, I instantly got it on my Kindle and began reading as soon as I possibly could. {Man, don't you LOVE the Kindle? I do. I've never understood the debate between people who are all like "oh books are so physical" because the Kindle is a true reader's best friend. You can carry your whole entire library with you on holiday--very important as someone who used to lug around five extra kilos just in books, and now the new airline handbaggage limit has gotten so strict. It lasts for aaaages without a charge, and when you do charge it, it only takes an hour or so to fill up. AND best of all, you can be in the middle of nowhere, no bookshop for miles, and buy the book everyone's talking about. [For this, you should ideally invest in the 3G + WiFi model, if you find yourself frequently in places without connectivity.] Go on, treat yourself (No, Amazon's not paying me, but they totally should.) (This is my second Kindle, the first one got loved-to-death.) (Now even my un-tech-savvy mum wants one.)

More about my trip SOON, with KITTEN PHOTOS!

I’ve been kind of obsessed with the Aarushi case since it first happened—and that’s a feeling I share with several other middle class Indians jolted into fear, disbelief and a certain amount of “schadenfreude” by the fact that your typical people-next-door, People Like Us, could conceive of killing their beloved only daughter. Not only were the Talwars perfectly respectable, they were also part of the new “liberal” Indian—they had a love marriage, one daughter they doted on, they both worked out of the home, and liked the good things in life. If the liberal Indian could kill their child, where did that leave the rest of us? Did we all have secret patriarchal leanings inside us threatening to detonate when a trigger situation happened? Or were liberal Indians just pretending to be liberal and actually masking a whole lot of traditional anger beneath the surface?

I’m basing all these questions on the popular version of what happened to Aarushi. When the 13-year-old was murdered all those years ago, there was a long and elaborate court case, and finally, the story that everyone bought, hook, line and sinker (this despite the fact that the parents were completely denying it and there were no eye witnesses, so why were we all so convinced about the sequence of events?) was that Aarushi was caught in a compromising position with the 50-year-old help, Hemraj, and when her father discovered them, he flew into an impassioned rage, killing them both with a golf club and then working with his wife to hide the bodies in possibly the worst way a body has ever been hidden.

I took most of the stuff I read in the newspaper as fact—this despite being a journalist once upon a time and knowing exactly how news can be manipulated—a crime story like this one? Surely the reporter had followed up and fact checked and all that. Sen’s book however, hinges on the fact that no one did. There is a very clear villain of the piece who emerges shortly after the murder investigation begins, a CBI cop in charge called AGL Kaul. Kaul is such a villain in fact that you sometimes forget you’re reading non-fiction at all. In fact, I’m just going to damn him with a tribute to him I found online by CBI director Amar Pratap Singh, upon Kaul’s death. The tribute says: “He had methodically investigated the case in such a manner that by eliminating all other theories there was only one conclusion, that the parents were responsible.” Actually, Sen says, he decided on this conclusion and then deliberately twisted or suppressed evidence so the Talwars were guilty. No other testimony counted but the ones that fit his own pet theory—the story I mentioned above.

The fact that the Talwars were guilty seems to have been a foregone conclusion, not just by the police investigating but also the judges trying their case. No one actually believed in the theory that outsiders did it, despite multiple evidence to that account. We saw the people-next-door and we hanged them because we were guilty of rubbernecking on this sordid affair, pausing to gasp from doorways: “You know their daughter was having sex with the servant?!?” “Who can say what goes on behind closed doors?” “It’s a sad world, that’s what it is.”

Of course, I need to also mention that I brought up the book to a friend who had been working in an NGO in Noida during the 2006 serial killer case in that area. Businessman Moninder Singh Pandher and his manservant Surinder Koli were accused of killing over 40 children and hiding them around their house. “Where are the Avirook Sens writing about those kids?” asked my friend, “Aren’t 30 or 40 murders more important than just one?” To which I say: yes. But sadly, those kids weren’t Indian middle class and so didn’t capture the imagination of the Indian middle class as much as the darling only daughter of two high profile dentists.

In all that, Sen’s book stands out for its honesty and ability to cut through the drivel. He says in the very beginning of the book that we may never know who killed Aarushi, but he is quite convinced by the end of his investigation that it wasn’t her parents. And I was too. 

Buy it here
(A version of this appeared as my column on
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If eM can bake, you can bake too! (plus all the recipes I love) PART ONE

7 July 2015

Baking is an exact science.

I mean, I read somewhere that cooking is an art and baking is science, and I guess that makes sense, because while I'm not one of life's feeders, I get excited only briefly by fresh ingredients and rarely use them all, leaving several vegetables to shrivel at the bottom of my veggie drawer, there's something about baking that appeals to me.

I loved my chemistry set when I was young. Is that still a popular present? It should be. My chemistry set was magic, I could make pink paper blue and make things fizz up and create invisible ink. Baking is a bit like that--it's all "add baking powder to make this rise" and "brown sugar makes your cookies crunchy while powdered white sugar makes it dense and cake-like." Your ingredients react with each other a lot, in the same way a science experiment does. There's only one pot or pan into which you pour everything and let the oven make its magic. It's amazing.

My mum had bought me a Bajaj OTG, a pretty small one, but still functional, back when I still lived in Bandra. I used it, but not a lot. I wasn't great at lining stuff up so they cooked perfectly, and the oven was always somewhat tempramental, so I wound up with stuff undercooked in the middle or too burnt around the edges. I didn't pursue it a lot.

It was only about two years ago, when I first moved into this house, the one I live in now, that I blew the dust off it and decided to get started in earnest. I had a chocolate chip cookie craving, and I had a free afternoon, so I ran down to the shop, got all my ingredients and made a batch. I kept one eye on the oven so that my cookies wouldn't overcook, and when they turned out WELL, not just ok, I put three or four in some aluminium foil and carried it to a party I was going to later, as a little host present. To my surprise and delight, I wasn't the only one who thought they were good (beauty is in the eye of the beholder, tastiness is on the tongue of the baker), and my cookies were a great success. "Do more!" people said, and I did, I whipped up cookie after cookie: Sriracha and peanut butter acquired legendary status and at home, the Good Thing and I grew addicted to oatmeal and apple.

I had no measuring cups (still don't), so the ingredients are somewhat eyeballed.

Also, this is all The Old Oven, which means you can do this with slightly faulty equipment. I was going to put my new cool oven and all the stuff I've made in THAT, but this was turning out to be a monster post, so that's for next time

Sriracha and Peanut Butter Cookies (Adapted with Indian ingredients)
I should really try these again

  • Two sticks of Amul Butter
  • 1½ cups Crunchy Peanut Butter (or Sunbutter if allergic to peanuts) (I used Fun & Food's version, they have two: crunchy and smooth.)
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 1 cup Brown Sugar (packed)
  • ¼ c Sriracha (available at INA market)
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 tsp Vanilla extract
  • 2¾ to 3 cups All-Purpose Flour (finished dough should be soft, but not sticky)
  • 1 teaspoon Baking Powder
  • ½ teaspoon Salt
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • Granulated sugar for dipping dough balls into.
  1. Cream together butter, peanut butter and sugars.
  2. Slowly add in sriracha, eggs and vanilla. Beat until combined.
  3. In another bowl mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
  4. Gently mix flour into peanut butter mixture until well combined. Place batter into refrigerator for 1 hour to chill.
  5. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
  6. Roll dough into approx 1" sized balls or use a Medium sized cookie scoop/Size 40 - 1½tbs portion. Dip the top of dough ball into granulated sugar and place onto cookie sheet.
  7. Flatten each ball with a fork, making a criss-cross pattern. Bake for 8-10 minutes or just until the cookies begin to brown. Do NOT over-bake!
  8. Cool on wire racks and enjoy!
    Oatmeal and Apple Cookies with Cinammon
    Breakfast of SUGAR HIGH champions

From Betty Crocker
3 sticks butter or margarine, softened
cup granulated sugar
cup packed brown sugar
teaspoon vanilla
1 3/4
cups maida
teaspoon baking soda (I just pretty much always use baking powder, it's easier to find)
1 1/2
teaspoons ground cinnamon
teaspoon salt
cups old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats (I like Baggry's for this)
medium apple, peeled and shredded (about 1 cup shredded) (Um, no need to shred, just chop fine)

  • Heat oven to 375°F. Spray cookie sheet with cooking spray.  (PRO TIP: for cookies, I use foil over the cookie sheet, which has the advantage of keeping the bottom both crisp AND soft, instead of overdone. No need to grease it, just peel cookies off.) 
  • In large bowl, beat butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar with electric mixer on medium speed until creamy. Beat in vanilla and eggs, scraping sides occasionally, until blended.
  • In medium bowl, mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Gradually beat flour mixture into sugar mixture. Stir in oats and apple. Onto cookie sheet, drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls 2 inches apart.
  • Bake about 10 minutes or until edges are light golden brown. Cool 1 minute; remove from cookie sheet to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 15 minutes.
  • I didn't make cakes much. I mean, I tried, but they never turned out all that well.  I made a carrot cake which was nice-ish, but still tasted too wet (I shoulda squeezed the juice out before baking it) and a banana cake which I took to several pot lucks and always came home to an empty box. (Also what we used to stimulate Bruno's appetite when he got sick.) 
  • Also I made cinammon rolls which need to RISE with YEAST, so you feel like a super baker, but then you freeze a whole bunch and just bake whenever you need them with coffee, which = LIFE OF LUXURY. It takes so little to feel posh. 
  • Bruno's Lifesaving Banana Cake
  • Can't find the original recipe, but here's something very similar. It's SUPER low fat, except the sugar, so eat guilt free!
    1 cup (240 ml) mashed ripe bananas (about 2 large bananas)
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/2 cup (120 ml) low-fat plain yogurt or any dahi you have in the house
    1/4 cup (60 ml) canola, vegetable, or corn oil (I used Sunflower with no change in results. You could also use olive oil if you want that extra flavour)
    3/4cup (165 grams) light brownsugar
    1 large egg or 2 large (60 grams) egg whites (screw the egg whites, just use the whole egg, unless you have cats who will eat the yolk for you.)
    1 teaspoon purevanillaextract
    1 cup (130 grams) all-purpose flour
    1/2 cup (65 grams) whole wheat flour
    1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon salt

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) and place the rack in the center of the oven. Spray an 8 x 4 inch (20 x 10 cm) loaf pan with a nonstick vegetable cooking spray.
    In a large bowl, mix the mashed bananas with the baking soda and yogurt. Allow to sit while you prepare the rest of the batter.
    Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, sugar, egg or egg whites, and vanilla.
    In another large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, ground cinnamon and salt.
    Then combine the banana mixture with the oil mixture and then add to the flour mixture. Stir just until all the ingredients are moistened. Pour into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 45 -55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean.
    Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool.
    Makes one loaf (about 12 slices). You can also make this in a cake pan for larger parties and cut it up smaller. I've done both.

  • Super Cinammon Rolls That You Can Totally Stick In The Freezer and Pull Out Later To Look Like Martha Stewart
  • From Paula Deen
  • 1/4 -ounce package yeast (You can buy powdered yeast in India now. It's super cheap and lasts a long time.)
  • 1/2 cup warm water
    1/2 cup scalded milk (Please. Regular milk will also do.)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
    1/3 cup butter or shortening
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
    3 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 cup melted butter, plus more for pan
  • 3/4 cup sugar, plus more for pan
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
    3/4 cup raisins, walnuts, or pecans, optional (Eh. I couldn't be bothered.)
  • Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

    In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water and set aside. In a 
  • large bowl mix milk, sugar, melted butter, salt and egg. Add 2 
  • cups of flour and mix until smooth. Add yeast mixture. Mix in 
  • remaining flour until dough is easy to handle. Knead dough on
  •  lightly floured surface for 5 to 10 minutes. Place in 
  • well-greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in size,
  •  usually 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

    When doubled in size, punch down dough. Roll out on a floured 
  • surface into a 15 by 9-inch rectangle. Spread melted butter all
  •  over dough. Mix sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over buttered
  •  dough. Sprinkle with walnuts, pecans, or raisins if desired.
  •  Beginning at the 15-inch side, role up dough and pinch edge 
  • together to seal. Cut into 12 to 15 slices.

    Coat the bottom of baking pan with butter and sprinkle with sugar.
  •  Place cinnamon roll slices close together in the pan and let 
  • rise 
  • until dough is doubled, about 45 minutes. Bake for about 30 
  • minutes or until nicely browned.



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