Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Importance of Being Thirty-something

Also on MSN India
Happy Birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to 34 year old meeeeee…

The room shakes with the thunderous applause of my imaginary friends, bringing a tear to my eye. Not from self-pity because I am on my own today, with my husband in London on work and my family far, far away on a distant shore. No, these are tears of joy because I have survived three rollercoaster decades of ups and downs, of trials, tribulations and triumphs, and am almost the age I always wanted to be -35!

In my mid-twenties, when my contemporaries complained about their advancing years, I always said I couldn’t wait till I was 35. Besides being the perfect opening shot for the kind of verbal duel I loved, I also really meant it. Looking at thirty-something women as a 25 year old, they seemed to have it all -house, spouse, career and children. I already had the dream career and was sure it was only a matter of time before I had the rest.

Of course, history proved me wrong. I found out you had to lose some to win some. I lost my career when I acquired a spouse, lost the spouse to regain my ambition and self-respect (and a charming little house of my very own), lost the house for a great new spouse (and a bigger better house) and so on, like one of those annoying doggerels from childhood, but a lot more meaningful because it’s your life.

Today, I am one short of that magic number- 35, and I’m counting my blessings. And the wonderful thing is I have almost as many of those as I have imaginary friends.

Scoff not, twenty-wotsit whippersnappers, nor shed a tear my thirty-something friends, there is indeed plenty to celebrate:

No.1 Looks - This is the decade you discover that conventional yardsticks of beauty are every bit as superficial as your parents promised, but being at ease in your skin is all-important and you now know how.

I spot a few new grey strands in my hair everyday but the streaks of silver suit my raven tresses and when I go completely grey, I am convinced I shall look like the gorgeous Storm from X-Men!

I have a bit more weight on me but also real curves, and have the confidence to wear what I like with panache and without concession to fads or Stone Age attitudes.

I don’t have a single wrinkle yet (looking at my mother, I know it’ll be years before I do, thanks Ma) and pimples are a thing of the prehistoric past.

And I’m in fabulous company, some of the most dazzling women in the world are in their thirties and improving exponentially every year; Angelina Jolie, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kylie Minogue to name a few.

We all agree that Hotpant Kylie the Pop Princess is a massive improvement on Dungarees Kylie from ‘Neighbours’ but Kylie is also a good example of another thing women acquire in their thirties (no, not Toy boys)...

No.2 Strength - You still can’t carry the living room sofa all by yourself (for most of us that will remain a distant dream!), but you do discover deep wells of emotional strength you never knew you had till it was put to the test.

I never had much time for Kylie till she beat cancer with such grace last year. I didn’t know what tenacity and determination I myself possessed till I survived a difficult divorce, largely on my own in a foreign land, with dignity, optimism and limbs intact!

You certainly don’t know what you’re made of till you’ve attended the School of Hard Knocks and most of us don’t till we’ve left our parents’ protection, our circle of staunch old friends or the country of our birth behind us. The wisdom of Solomon, a will of steel, or that indomitable spirit – many of us discover a couple of these in the midst of our first big crisis in our thirties.

And if you should find you have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, well, isn’t it better to have been clueless about your ineptitude till your thirties when you have developed a thick skin at least?

No.3 Fun - Repeat after me - life does not end at 30. It probably doesn’t at 40 either but I won’t know for another 6 years!

I’ve had just as much fun in my thirties, a different kind of fun; it’s more me than the things I felt compelled to do in my twenties.

I’m sure I’ve been to every club, pub and discotheque that was around at the time, either with friends, half-heartedly joining in their ‘merrymaking’ into the wee hours, or with my TV crew to cover an event. The latter was always less work and more fun than the former!

Nowadays I love a good pub- a ‘gastro pub’, usually in the English countryside, full of history and fine food, or a sophisticated wine bar, all cool minimalism, muted music and inventive cocktails, the kind you can have a proper (if slightly tipsy) powwow in because you can hear yourself think.

I might even deign to dance at a party or jump, wave and scream with the best of them at a gig but only to music that moves me and not because I am expected to.

And if you fancy a spot of crochet, go for it, because that’s the beauty of being thirty-something, you do what you want to do!

Most of all, if this attempt to remind my friends that it is my birthday today should fail, I won’t hold it against them because blissful forgetfulness is also a part of our thirties.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Twice as Nice

Also on MSN India
Seconds anyone? I’ll have some, thanks!

In my experience most things are better the second time around.

Don’t you think left over curry is tastier than freshly-cooked? Overnight, the meat soaks up all the flavours that were swirling around in that extra bucketful of water you’d tipped in accidentally, and in the morning it’s fit for a banquet!

If you’re on your own that morning and can’t be bothered to make breakfast for one, you take a dollop of curry from the fridge to have cold with slices of untoasted bread. Some would call you bone lazy but I’d say you were a comfort food connoisseur, because there’s nothing quite like cold curry and pauruti as you slope around the house in your pyjamas on a rainy morning.

It’s not just food that’s better the second time around, stories can improve with retelling too.

I find that especially true of those classic films your parents made you watch as a kid. ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Hatari’ and ‘Ben Hur’ were excruciatingly boring and embarrassingly naff when made to sit through them as a ten year old with every young cousin that your family could dredge up shackled together in front of the TV like some juvenile chain gang.

OK, we weren’t really chained together but they had their beady eye on us throughout and squirmers and whingers were promptly put in their place so everyone could enjoy the wholesome entertainment.

Of course, you could watch ‘Ben Hur’ any number of times and it wouldn’t improve but many old movies do. Having sought some of them out as an adult, I’ve fallen in love with black and white beauties like ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘Spellbound’ (‘course it’s got nothing to do with the fine figure of a man that was Gregory Peck)!

As for books, I have neither the patience nor time these days to plough through pages hoping damp squibs liven up, unless they grip me from the start. But on the few occasions I have returned to a book I have found it rewarding.

I have always loved Sting’s eclectic music and environmental zeal and so when my husband took me to the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales two years ago to watch him holding forth on his new book, I expected a very different person from the arrogant and self-absorbed man we saw. Presented with his book ‘Broken Music’ thereafter, I found I could not get into it. I laboured through the first chapter and put it away.

Two years later with the memory of his airs at the festival fading, I picked it up again and found it totally absorbing. The man was certainly no saint but the book is beautifully written and redolent with the sights and sounds of the North of England in the 60’s and 70’s.

Of course, there are many books like that, tomes you put aside to go back to with a clear head (think James Joyce), and the same is true of people.

I am invariably wrong about men the first time I meet them, so I have schooled myself not to be taken in by first impressions. Dazzlers are often dastardly, and the callow or taciturn can reveal themselves to be youthful, intelligent and entertaining.

I am, indeed, thinking of my husband. He is my second husband because second marriages like so many other things are better than the first!

By then you’ve already been ‘round the block, and know that there are very few princes lurking beneath the warty exterior of the frogs you are meant to kiss. Then out of the blue, in a mouldy meeting room, it happens; your eyes meet across the doodles of monsters, monkeys and deliberately misshapen colleagues on your respective notepads. It is not the fairytale setting of your adolescent dreams, and he is not Rhett Butler (Thank the Lawwd, as GWTW’s Mamie would have said).

He will never sweep me into a seductive Fandango or emerge from a lake in a sodden shirt clinging to his pumped-up pecs. He won’t lay his dashingly cut cape down over puddles for me to walk across unsullied.

And that could be because he’s not a fictional character, the kind you no longer want because you’ve grown up. What he does do means so much more; he wraps me in his coat lovingly when I’m cold, he looks after me tenderly when I’m ill, he makes me laugh my blues away and takes the weight of the world off my shoulders every time I need a break.

Of course, as with all second helpings, great things are made better by their unexpected appearance.

Last time I was in such a tearing hurry to board the very first bus that came along that I didn’t even check the destination. This time, I wasn’t even at the bus stop; I was mooching along, stopping to smell the flowers, when that nifty little number pulled up beside me and asked if I wanted a ride.

I said sure Mister, join me on my ramble while I get the measure of you, because I am older and wiser and know what I want. And on our stroll through the next few years, I discovered that he not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk, and so we walked all the way up the aisle.

How about it then? It’s all very well to be once bitten twice shy, but when you are ready to live a little, treat yourself to seconds, they are usually twice as nice!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

On the Eve of Battle

Also on MSN India
I don’t like cricket. Oh no.

I love it!

….sang Reggae band 10cc in 1978. This Friday, thousands will be heading for Trent Bridge in Nottingham to watch the India-England test match with this mantra in their heads.

I will join them on the 2nd day, to sit high above the action with my husband and his friends. As always, we will be buffeted by strong winds up there in ‘the heavens’, holding on to each other so we don’t get blown off! It will drizzle through the day, my extremities will freeze, and the damp will find its way into my bones through layers of clothing. The men will fortify themselves with a tad too much of ‘a little something to keep them warm’, whilst I keep the soggy sandwiches company. But at no point will I consider leaving or opt out of our day at ‘the crickitt’ the next year.

This mystifies some of my English friends who are either disenchanted with the game or never got into it. I cannot make them understand without teleporting them to the Eden Gardens in the late Eighties where I watched the elegant Azharuddin score a poetic ton, or into any ordinary Calcutta home in the climactic moments of an Indo-Pak one-dayer, when family and friends (and a few strays from the street) are huddled around the TV, eyes glued to the screen, hearts beating in unison, till the last ball is bowled. Each doing what they fervently believe they need to, to see India to victory-crossing their fingers, praying under their breath, or scrambling at the last minute to tug on those lucky socks! And the jubilation, that feeling of sheer ecstasy when India won; I know it’s been a while but can you remember that charged atmosphere, the surge of people on the streets, the noise of every radio and TV in full blast, and the fireworks that lit up the night sky?

How can I explain to the uninitiated that I love cricket because it connects me to my fellow Indian and allows us to experience a shared high every now and then?

So, march on, Time! On Saturday, I will be there in full regalia, in saffron, white and green bits and bobs cobbled together from the depths of my wardrobe (pity I couldn’t find any face paint). I will nail my colours to the mast and look pityingly upon those who do not feel the same fervour. I will stand up and be counted, despite the vertigo that drawing myself up to my full five feet in those dizzyingly high stands can trigger. I will endure the gimlet eyed scrutiny of overzealous security personnel because I must be there for the boys (no, not my husband and his friends, the Indian Team)!

And then, if it turns out to be a beautiful day when I can watch my favourite sport basking in the mellow English sun, I shall pray for rain!

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Food of Love

Also on MSN India
If you are looking for that oysters-dipped-in-pink champagne recipe (always served wearing red stilettos and nothing much besides), or you want to know whether white shallots from Albania munched at bedtime will rekindle passions, this isn’t the page for you.

I am not withholding information hoping you buy my new cookbook out in stores now (you’re confusing me with Nigella Lawson, it’s easily done!); I simply don’t know and wasn’t planning to find out.

We don’t have oysters or shallots flown in from Albania very often, but we are always a happy twosome in the kitchen, cocooned in the smells and billowing smoke of our dish of the day. Sometimes we are just adding our own twist to a family recipe, or creating flavours of our very own.

My husband is the latter kind of cook, experimental and daring, with a flair for chucking things into the pot and getting it right. I am of the former school; I usually start with a recipe from my mother (or some other accomplished cook in the family), find that I don’t have the ingredients I need, and then, put in tentative new touches, adding more as the pot bubbles and lets off fragrant steam and I gain in confidence, to create a new variation of an old favourite.

It doesn’t always work; I have served my husband, my new boyfriend then, Shrivelled Shrimps in Gritty Tomato, and my visiting family, my usually good Coriander Chicken, in a watery grave.

Sometimes I get distracted, as with the shrimps, when I thought I’d scrub up nice before he arrived, leaving them to simmer. They withered and died instead. That he ate it with pretended gusto was testament to how much he wanted to keep seeing me!

On the rare occasions that our usually happy equation isn’t working, my husband will throw in a fistful of ingredients using his unerring feel for the right quantities, whilst I gingerly sprinkle little bits of this and that; his flavours drown out mine and we end up with a hotchpotch instead of a hot pot. I must admit it works best when he takes the lead and I play apprentice; he is an artist in the kitchen and that’s the only place I’m prepared to be obedient.

My idea of the ‘food of love’ is not any of the exotic recipes peddled by TV chefs, it isn’t even about that old adage- ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’. It wouldn’t be true in our case, would it? It isn’t even true the other way ‘round, because what first impressed me about his cooking wasn’t how good it was (which it was) but that we sat and chatted in his kitchen while he cooked (luurvved the masterful way he crushed the plum tomatoes, by the way!), that it was all done in a jiffy, with plenty of flair but no ceremony, and that the conversation flowed easily through the evening from food, friends, family, films, travel and back again. And that none of it was a chore!

Of course, cooking can be drudgery. I should know, I used to hate the little kitchen in my old house because it was where my ex-husband cooked his favourite food-'ready meals' in the microwave, and where year on year, after a long day at work, I would wash the dishes in the grey light filtering through the ugly lace curtains his father had given us. I didn’t think I would ever enjoy cooking but all that changed when I bought my freedom and the house. Suddenly, the kitchen (minus the lace curtains and the ex-husband) was a charming haven, and concocting dishes with fresh ingredients, an exciting adventure.

I’m no expert (its Dr Ruth you’ve got me mixed up with now and I’m not impressed!) but my experience tells me that enjoying the everyday things together makes a big difference-a shared love of good food and its preparation, or even that most tedious of tasks-grocery shopping. We actually like shopping for food, at farmers’ markets and delis and quaint little fresh food shops, which usually require a drive out into the countryside and necessarily, a picnic on the way back!

So, I don’t know about you but I won’t be buying any pickled Bushbaby brains to take to bed with me anytime soon, local cheese and crusty bread in a wooded copse on a sunny day will do us fine.