Let me confess up front- I am a Britney Spears fan. I know every word of every song that she sang before 2004. No, that is a lie. I can sing all of her songs ever! As catchy as her songs used to be, they didn’t teach you much about life unless your life was tangled in boy-problems. This is true of most songs of our age. No one ever wants to write, sing or hear songs that tell stories anymore. But James Blunt gnaws his way out of the stereotype.
If I had to spend the rest of my life listening to songs by just one singer, I would choose James Blunt. It would be a tough competition between him and Drake, but JB would win. I have the most bizarre/romantic story about how I first came upon his songs. I found an unlabelled CD in my father’s car that had Wisemen on it. Just that one song. No one knew where that CD had come from or who it belonged to. I was a 16 year old hopeless romantic who took that as a sign and listened to nothing but all the songs from Back to Bedlam for a whole month.
At that age, I never really understood James’ songs. To me they were just words about three wisemen or a year where Simona grew old or a woman who is beautiful. The rest were just JB crooning. It took me two heartbreaks and an article about the meaning behind the song to understand what Wisemen was all about. As a person who has had a safe and a happy childhood, the concept of bullying being life changing in any way was hard to grasp. But this song has been a great source of consolation and strength to many who fight the bullies that have stayed in their minds years after middle-school was over. “Look who’s alone now, it’s not me. Those three wisemen, they’ve got a semi by the sea.”
When James sang No Bravery, I felt my eyes welling up each time. There is no hidden meaning in this song. It is in your face. The brutality of war and consequences faced by everyone but those who actually want the war. Having served in the army himself, James doesn’t mince his words. I recently read an article that went on to describe how JB single-handedly prevented a World War III. I adore him, but I thought the article was a notch higher on the cuckoo-scale. Exaggeration aside, if you listen closely, you feel the pain of war in James’ lyrics. “And I see no bravery in your eyes, just fear.”
I read PS I love you and thought it was ridiculous. Everyone I know thinks I am a horrible human being for not liking that book. A dear friend decided to give me a second chance and took me for the movie. Although the movie was heart-wrenchingly moving, it was hearing JB’s voice singing Same Mistake in the end that made me cry. Singing about beautiful love is easy. Everyone does that. But singing about flawed love is hard. And James does that flawlessly. “And maybe someday we will meet; And maybe talk but not just speak. Don’t buy the promises because there are no promises I keep.”
James Blunt has sung some really great songs over the years. He has won awards for them. At one point, a British radio channel had to ban his songs because he kept topping all the charts and people kept requesting the same tracks over and over again! But there’s one song, relatively unnoticed, that has touched me the most. Out of my Mind. As I grow older, I understand the song better.
“We all need a pantomime to remind us what is real.” With one line, James Blunt describes the global society in the twenty-first century . In the United States, we needed a brilliant-orange painted performer to show that our color, our race, our religion is making someone hate us enough to build walls to divide us. The elaborate exhibitions of dramatic proportions made us all realize that even after centuries of building a land together with sweat and blood from all over the globe, the first man to lay claim over a land and destroying its ancient history, thought himself to be supreme. In Europe, the performances had to be so real that only washed up bodies of children could grab the attention of millions of people turning a blind-eye to problems of people forced to leave their home and lives.
Love, life, truth- James Blunt can sing about it all. Over the years, his songs have started to decrease in depth. Maybe I have to grow older and wiser to be able to fully understand them. In the meantime, I will bask in the glorious sunshine of James’ voice and lyrics. Someday I’ll meet someone who loves them like I do. Till then, “Beautiful dawn, you’re just blowing my mind again. Thought I was born to endless night, until you shine.”
Most people who think they know me will dismiss me as a realistic, unimaginative person for whom the only vacation spot is a museum or an urban monument. I hardly come across as a hopeless romantic who gets lost in nature and believes in mysticism and destiny. But my best friends know I am exactly the kind of person who will fall in love with a person who doesn’t exist, a country I have never been to and ideas that have no place in our society. My own parents don’t know that side of me. Honestly, this is all on me. I am quite the bipolar person. One week I will be focusing on becoming the most powerful woman in the global pharmaceutical scene,working crazy late hours and walking like I always have somewhere to be at. Next week, I’ll be floating around, meditating to Tibetan chants and declaring that I am quitting my PhD to go live in the mountains to channel the vibrations of the cosmos through own subconscious. Honestly, I do not know which side of me is the real me. Traveling, they say, helps you rediscover yourself. Spending time away from the routine lets you seek answers to the questions you did not know you had.
When my parents said they were visiting me for two weeks in summer, I immediately got to looking for places to visit with them. I was aiming for a week-long vacation because if the Gosavi family is left to its own devices for anything longer than fifteen minutes, disputes are sure to ensue. I did not want to travel in the US because one, it’s too expensive, two, I cannot drive and most importantly, the place isn’t romantic enough for me. Canada was my top choice amongst lands undiscovered. I would have loved to get lost in the forests of British Columbia and the shores of Vancouver, but the Canadian Government gave me a foot-long visa form to fill. So unromantic Canada! I turned to another of US’s neighbors. Mexico beckoned me like a temptress with its azure beaches, dense forests and crumbling ruins. As an Indian with limited history and geography knowledge, I did not know there was a Mexico beyond Cancun, Cabo and feuding drug cartels. My parents showed lukewarm interest in going to this country that was so new for us. I took that as a yes and began planning.
My bipolar nature came up again when I did not want to visit the conventional touristy places and yet wanted to online-plan every step of our vacation. Thankfully, I got really cheap flight tickets on a Mexico tourism website. The website looked official enough but the prices were too good to be true. As a rule of thumb, I tend to suspect anything that has improper grammar, be it a website, a restaurant menu or a research paper. I took a leap of faith and booked these really inexpensive flights to the state of Chiapas in the heart of Mexico. None of my friends had ever heard of it, let alone visited it. They all asked me the same question, “How far is it from Cancun?” Chiapas is one of the most economically strained states in Mexico with tourism being its major source of income. The main attraction here are the ruins of Mayan temples hidden in forests. The place is literally packed to the rafters with these damn ruins. My mom, another hopeless romantic, is crazy about the Mayan civilization and has read a lot of books about it. Dad, being immensely proud to finally have a daughter who’s willing to take responsibility, said he’d come anywhere I’d take him. That just looked like more pressure on me. I started learning Spanish using an app. I had learnt the basic language ages ago, but the app was just a formality. Everyone everywhere spoke English anyway, I thought vainly. Life was silently laughing at me, plotting a cruel plan to bring the jarring reality upon me!
After my romantic side had picked the place and booked the impulse flights, my obsessively planning side took over. I made excel sheets of budget, travel times, possible hotels and places to visit. My advisor would be quite mad if he found out I used the time I was supposed to research catalysts to research vacation destinations! I should have known that Chiapas wasn’t the best idea when I couldn’t find hotel and bus websites in English. When I called the hotels up, all I could say was “No hablo Español, Ingles por favor?” with arrogance that the British left behind in India. Thankfully they could always find someone to help me out. When we finally set off to Villahermosa from Chicago, we were the only non-Hispanic people on the flight. Even the flight announcements were in Spanish. It was too late to go back now. An overwhelming sense of panic came over me. I was leading my parents to a vacation in a place where we couldn’t even understand or speak the language. Fortunately, my parents had let go of all their worries and said that we can spend the entire vacation in the hotel if need be.
Our journey was a teardrop shaped one. From Chicago, we flew to Villahermosa via Mexico City. From there to Palenque was ninety-minute long cab journey. Spending three nights in Palenque, we would go to San Cristobal de las Casas for two nights. Driving down to Tuxtla Gutierrez, we were flying back to Chicago via Mexico City. Mexico City looks like a giant glittery colony of a million fireflies even at 3 am. It looked larger than even Mumbai. At the airport, after receiving our Mexican visa, dad and I began what promised to be a week-long power struggle. He wanted to be the team leader for the trip like he had always been before for the last twenty-four years. I had spent months planning this trip and was the only person who could speak Spanish, it made perfect sense for me to lead the vacation. Mom was totally chill with us wanting to lead and did not care as long as she was getting all her meals without moving a hair! We mutually agreed that I would assume the leadership position. At the Mexico City Airport, during flight transfers, my dad held a mini coup and went rogue. He went with all our luggage to a gate where he thought we could check in to our next flight and ended up in the wrong place. That gaffe helped me established my regime even better.
The flight to Villahermosa was short and the aircraft was the tiniest, cutest one I’d ever been in. Getting off at the airport, we got an airport cab to Palenque which was about an hour and a half away. The driver spoke no English and he knew we spoke no Spanish, we both kept yapping to each other anyway. The first seventy-five minutes of the journey were smooth on a major state highway between the states of Tabasco and Chiapas. There were beautiful fields on either side of the roads and vendors selling earthenware and plantains. It was uncannily like India, but without the incessant honking. We passed a military check-post at the state boundary and I dramatically hid my purse in case it was the 70s in a drug-cartel TV show again. The armed men did not even give us a glance. In another twenty minutes I’d be sipping piña-coladas by the pool. If only this were ideal life!! We suddenly hit what looked like a mile-long traffic jam with big trucks and busses immobile and all their occupants patiently waiting on the side of the road. I pushed the panic button again when there was no way I could find out what was going wrong. The driver said there was something to do with ‘maestro’ and ‘bloqueo’. ‘What? The drug cartel masters were blocking the roads?’ The paranoid psychotic in me was alive again!
Thankfully the driver did not lose his head like I did and turned the car before we were caught in the jam. He asked around a bit and said he knew another road. This other ‘road’ turned out to be an obscure dirt path between fields and ranches. Five minutes on the road and there was only one more car with us. Just outside a ranch, a group of locals blocked our path with a rope. They demanded a fee to let us pass. I knew this was it. I brought my parents all the way to Mexico to be looted if not killed within two hours of being in the country. We could have gone to Niagara Falls or Washington DC like normal Indian people. But no, I had to be oversmart and now I must pay the price! Our driver gave these people twenty pesos and they let us pass having a good laugh at everyone who was forced to pay this illicit “toll”. The dirt road was endless and I soon lost internet connectivity. Our resort was still two hours away. My piña-colada by the pool were surely warm and watery by now. With dramatic dust clouds rising up from the road, the only live creatures we saw for miles were cows grazing on the ranches. I thought I should pray to these cows as a Hindu to keep us safe and ensure we didn’t die in this journey. But I knew the cows would moo smartly right at me to remind me of all the chili fries and spaghetti Bolognese I ate. My best bet was to try to fall asleep and hope I’ll be alive when I woke up. Dad and mom were much more relaxed about it. They took the whole “karma” stand on the situation and how we are just being “tested”. Hilarious now, the idea appealed a lot me in that stressful condition! After I had finished planning my survival in the ranches of Chiapas, we finally saw our dearest, long-lost state highway. We reached our resort in three pieces, one per person, albeit spiritually stronger. The resort was every bit as exotic as the website had claimed. We got to our cottage, dumped our luggage and headed straight to the pool for piña-coladas!!
But wait, this is just a sixteen hundred-word description of two flights and a drive! Where’s the actual vacation, you ask? Well that’s for another time. Watch this space for more! (I always wanted to say that!)
I first joined Instagram in 2015 because my boyfriend said it’ll give us a place to post our pictures together because our entire families were on Facebook and would love (understatement) to get a good scoop about our lives. The fancy-shmancy filters made me look a lot prettier than I actually am. So thats how it started, couply photos and great filters. This was also around the time that I had just started adjusting to graduate student life and did not cook AT ALL. I saw that people not only put restaurant food pictures on Instagram (A practice frowned upon on Facebook), but have dedicated food accounts! I followed all of them. I was homesick for Indian food. Totally unmotivated to cook, I just followed all the Pune, Mumbai, Delhi based food accounts. I was like a teenage boy who’s just discovered free internet porn. All day I just looked at and commented on pictures of pav bhaji, paneer tikka, cheese masala dosas and chilly chicken. That was my sad Instagram presence; I was that creepy dude on Facebook who commented “Meddem u r very prity. Plz accpt reqst”. But not for long.
After I put on a ton of weight and depleted my savings on restaurant food, it was time I turned that stove on and cooked something. Susheel is great at taking pictures. He said I should put a picture on Instagram of the food I cooked. And that was it, I thought I am going to become an instant sensation. Breaking the internet with my amazing new food account. I got an unoriginal new handle. An Indian rip off of ‘Shiro Dreams of Sushi’, continuing the Indian legacy of putting a desi twist on things and calling them our own (Pritam’s music, Bollywood movies, our constitution!). A PhD student who cooks, that has got to be unique right? Seven billion people in this world, sure it was going to be an unique account. I soon found out there were seven food accounts of PhD students from my University. I can do the math. Slightly disheartened, I continued my food account nevertheless, holding back on the hashtags because lets face it, they’re tacky. The likes on my pictures never crossed that stage where you stop seeing the names of people who pity-liked your pictures. Then Susheel had a brilliant idea, he sent me links to articles on how to create successful Instagram food accounts (you won’t believe how many of those are out there).
And there I was, with a public profile and fingers locked and loaded to type out hashtags with the speed of light. I followed all the successful food accounts and commented on each one of their pictures. My right thumb and shoulder haven’t stopped hurting since. Surprisingly, this worked! Instead of being creeped out by this kid who keeps commenting “Such a lovely dish dear!” on all their pictures, people started liking me back. I soon reached double digit likes and had my own set of stranger followers. I am sure all my friends unfollowed me because I had become a hashtag sellout. As I crossed three hundred followers, I decided just normal food pictures weren’t enough. I started trying out new recipes, bought new pretty plates from World Market, conjured up more and more hashtags. I also started this fail blog to put up my recipes. I soon realized there are two things I couldn’t do to get more likes, write recipes and tag a million other people in my pictures. I can never seem to remember what all I put in the food and in what quantity or order. Also there are already so many recipe accounts that I read to cook that it is redundant and unethical to put up recipes. The motto of my entire life has been to cause the least possible inconvenience to others. Waking up to being tagged in a million poorly taken food photographs must surely be annoying for the Insta celebrities. Its also not justified that tagging fifty people on a Facebook photo is unsophisticated, but is totally acceptable to do the same on Instagram. This is not different from an ugly dude tagging fifty hot girls in his profile pictures to get more likes!
Hashtag till you die
As I reached four hundred followers, I realized there was an ugly underbelly to the community Instagram food celebrities. For one, they have cliques that follow and comment on each others pictures all the time. Like a mutual contract. Nothing wrong with that. But having a ton of followers is not the end of being a celebrity, you should follow the minimum number of people. Which is a paradox because you need to follow more people to get followers. I soon realized that people follow you, then you follow them, the next day they unfollow you and you end up looking silly! I realized this when the same person followed me twice in the same week. Also, to look cool, you don’t put many hashtags in the caption. You put them as a comment under your picture. When people comment on your photo, the first comment gets hidden. And I thought doing catalysis on nanoparticles was complicated!
The best thing about Instagram is that anyone can be a celebrity. Theres no way to tell if a beautiful food picture is actually delicious. As I reach five hundred followers, which will go down to 495 by noon tomorrow, I am losing a sense of why I started doing this in the first place. What happens when I become an Instagram celebrity? Does that mean I am a great cook, great photographer or just talented at hash-tagging? Do I get richer? I don’t have the answers. Honestly I can’t even justify why I spent $30 on buying new plates to take better food pictures. It’s a great thing to be famous, even if it is in a small community. But it is not worth the time and energy spent playing mind games and double tapping pictures till the phone screen cracks. Having said that, I will now intersperse this wall of text with my Instagram pictures to get more followers, cause I am sneaky that way. Happy ‘gramming my folks! #hypocrite #instawannabe #hashtagsarentlame #hatersgonnahate
When I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2014 with a pocketful of dreams and a tummy full of appetite, the last thing I thought I would miss was Chinese food. I wanted to try all the different food from all over the place. I spent my first quarter at school eating something new everyday, Turkish begendi, Polish peirogies, Mexican fajitas and of course American pancakes. There was SO much to try. I did not crave for Indian food till the first set of exams arrived! There are many Indian restaurants in and around Evanston and Chicago and I planned to try all of them. On my way to a nice little place called Mumbai Indian Grill, I mentally planned my dinner, Veg Manchurian for starter followed by Paneer Biryani. Or maybe I’ll just have a Triple Schezwan Rice. How greatly was fate going to crash my hopes!! On the menu there was no Manchurian, no Schezwan and there was an odd thing called Vindaloo that sounded like black magic. What on earth was Vindaloo and why the hell was there no Chinese food? I just ate really American bland Chicken Makhani “entree” and left hoping I would find real restaurant Indian food someplace else. Now, I know I was being unreasonable. Back in India the restaurants don’t say “Indian Food” because, well, for us it’s just food. And one restaurant usually has both desi and Chinese food because that’s the way it is! I was foolish to expect there to be chilly Paneer or Machurian on the menu.
So my next attempt was to try and find that food in the Chinese restaurants. People who’ve been living outside India for a while are now laughing in their heads at my naive expectations. Evanston has ton of lovely Chinese, Korean and Thai restaurants. Racist people like me think its all the same food. Well, it is not. And it definitely doesn’t include Veg Manchurian. I did eat some Schezwan food though. Nothing like the garlicky, red and salty version we eat in India. Was it better? I couldn’t say. Did it had to be sweetish? I wish not.
Just as I was adjusting my palate to the Chinese and Indian food here, calling Schezwan sauce as ‘hot sauce’ and Naan as ‘Naan bread’, my roommate found the perfect place to go for her birthday celebrations. An Indo-Chinese restaurant, Bombay Chopsticks, in a suburb, Schaumburg, thirty miles away. We did not have a car, there is no direct public transport, but off we went there in two Uber XLs. A giant group of nine people. When we saw the place and the menu we absolutely went berserk. We ordered everything our hearts desired. My roommate was paying so we ordered to our hearts’ content. My roommate, in her birthday euphoria combined with the bliss of seeing ‘real’ Chinese food went overboard and said “Let there be food!” Of course the bill was humungous and it hurt our eyes to look at it. My poor roommate was shocked and we all helped her with the bill. But was that a price too high to pay for the great food that we had? Maybe yes, because at the end of the day, we were all poor graduate students. We went home that day hoping our souls would be satisfied for at least a year.
But knowing that there was Desi-Chinese (I soon found out it was called this West of Quetta) thirty miles away from me made me even more restless. Exams were taxing and research wasn’t easy. If Dumbledore plonked the Mirror of Erised in front of me, I would see myself eating a plate of chilly chicken. Dark times. Then one day Susheel and I decided to go to Schaumburg and eat there as a gift to one another. We took the public transport for an hour and a half, trudged over the deserts for 7 days and waded across the frigid river for a week to reach the golden mountain. Not entirely true, but you get my point. We ate again at the restaurants. Turns out it wasn’t that great. Maybe our hopes were too high, maybe the euphoria of discovering a new place had worn off, whatever, the food wasn’t great. Heavy heart, lighter pockets, we came back home swearing we’ll never go chasing the golden deer again.
But hope is indefatigable. While planning my BFF vacation to Atlanta, GA with my childhood friend, I came across a bunch of Desi Chinese restaurants there. Hope blossomed in my heart again. We skipped going to Georgia Tech (another place that broke my heart by rejecting me) and went to this quaint restaurant called Chinese Dhaba. The name was perfect, the food not so much. I mean it wasn’t all bad, as you can see for yourself, we did enjoy there. But again my heart sought the food of my country (or my country’s neighbor)!
Food at Chinese Dhaba, Atlanta, GA
Finally, I had given up on finding good Desi Chinese food in the US. I used to follow instagram posts of people in India eating all the good stuff. I cried myself to sleep dreaming about Paneer 65 for several nights. I had sold my soul for a visa. This was my punishment. Then the answer came to me in my dream from an angel, it was actually my mom who taunted me over Skype one day, ” All these years you made me cook Chinese at home. And here you are spending millions trying to get to eat a plate of Manchurian.” Viola! I had the solution. The only way to enjoy Desi Chinese in the US is to make it yourself. I tried an failed several times before I could perfect that Schezwan fried rice. Weekends were mainly just chopping and julienning vegetables for the Hakka noodles. Even Susheel was hooked on to cooking Chinese at home. On Valentine’s day, we stayed at home and cooked a whole elaborate meal.
Schezwan Fried Rice with Soy chunks
Home-made Gobi Manchurian and Hakka Noodles
Chicken Chilly from Usmania, Chicago that I modified to make it fit for human consumption
We had found happiness at last, and that too at the last place people would look for it, in our own homes. Our quest for the best Desi Chinese was finally over. Amen.
Now, I am a chemical engineer, more of a chemist to be honest. I should know the importance of measurement and ratios to get the right product. They say cooking is like chemistry, follow the recipe and you become the masterchef. Miss a step and ruin the meal. I could not disagree more. Cooking is like potion-making. Do as the recipe tells you and you get a drab, standard meal. Add your own twist, and lo!, you are the half-blood prince! Everyone has his own take on measuring your ingredients when they cook. I don’t like measuring them. I feel them, touch them and smell them. No, I am not abusing the ingredients in an indecent manner. This is the way I have always cooked. I am not saying I was born a genius cook or that measuring ingredients is below me. I have burnt, over-cooked, under-cooked and thrown away so many versions of my signature lemon-corriander soup till I made the perfect one! Did I write how I made it? No. There was no way I could remember everything in the exact same way. I did not know that one was going to be great. I did not even know if that one was the best one. Just like in my lab where we are constantly trying to find better catalysts for the reactions that have been carried out for centuries, the recipes can be made better too.
I would be lying if I say I have never read or used recipe books. I grew up reading the recipes of Tarla Dalal. When I was a fat kid trying to lose weight, her wonderful recipes and pictures served as my placebo meals as I ate my salads. I still read and use recipes online for a rough reference to ensure I do not put actual jewels in my Navratan Korma. But I don’t follow them 100%. There isn’t a point to it really. The person who’s put that delicious recipe up has his/her own style, brand of spices and cookware. The taste is anyway going to be different. Whimsical as this may be, it has been my personal inclination. It really annoys my boyfriend because he is usually the one to be subjected to the first version of my recipes. Once I decided to listen to him and follow the recipe for baked vegetable manchurian that I read online. The recipe was flawless, but I wasn’t. New to America, I did not know that the temperature on the oven knobs are in Fahrenheit. I assumed it was Celsius (like all the normal people in the rest of the world) and the result was highly undercooked disintegrating manchurian balls. Since then, I just do as my heart tells me to do. It is a highly inefficient way of cooking, but there you are. That’s who I am. Writing a blog when I should be writing a paper. Cooking meals when I should be eating takeouts like your common graduate student. And feeling and smelling food when I should be using measures!
The images are not my own. They are of products from Etsy or Amazon. I wish I had the salary to afford those.