Sunday, July 13, 2008

What do you say in a wedding vow? That you’re theirs forever? That your futures are assured with one another? That you’re guaranteed happiness as long as you remain together? What do you promise the other person that they can believe, not only at the emotion-filled moment in which you speak the words but for every day of your lives as husband and wife, when one of you has their head in the toilet, or has done something terribly wrong, when you feel like you’re looking at a total stranger? What can I say to D that I haven’t already said? How often can I say I love you? And how come, on that one day, in that moment, when I’m supposed to be telling him how I feel about him, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough? As I contemplate my wedding vows, I find myself, for once, at a loss for words.

I’m not usually a fan of Paulo Coelho, but this little tale seemed incredibly relevant:
For days a man and a woman travelled almost without speaking. Finally the couple arrived in the middle of the forest and
found a wise man.
“My companion said almost nothing to me during the whole journey,” said the man.
“A love without silence is a love without depth,” answered the wise man.
“But she didn’t even say she loved me!”
“Said the sage: “Some people always claim that. And we end up wondering if their words are true.”
The three of them sat on a rock. The wise man pointed to the field of flowers all around them. “Nature isn’t always
repeating that God loves us. We only realize that through His flowers.”

Sometimes I think the less there is to say, the more I speak. Often I say words, cobbling together sentences, paragraphs, making points, pointing out evidences, so that I won’t need to hear what the silence beneath my constant babble is trying to communicate instead.

It’s easier to keep talking, to cover up, hide behind statements, opinions, the clarity of verbalization rather than having to decipher facial expressions, hand gestures, body language that may be speaking a whole other truth.

And yet, when I think about the most powerful moments in my life, they rarely involved words; and if they did, the actual words spoken were secondary.

When I was eleven years old, my parents had their last fight as a married couple. It was a lock-down, drag out-saga that stretched across a good few hours and several floors of the house. My father had relegated my mother to the fifth floor while he roamed the first four. I don’t know how it started, but by the end of it, I knew they weren’t getting back together. My brother and I ran after my crazed, impassioned parents as they ascended and descended the myriad of staircases, insulting each other, calling each other by all sorts of names in all sorts of languages, grabbing hold of one another or both of us.

We finally found ourselves on the fifth floor looking out at the building across the street. The room where it all ended was so large that a few years later it was converted into an apartment for my grandfather.

I remember standing with my brother. At ages nine and eleven, it was probably the closest we’d ever stood to one another without attempting to bash the other’s skull in, but we were shell-shocked and, I think, already aware that we were it: he and I would need each other when it came to prying through the he-said-she-said between my parents.

My father knelt in front of us and told us he loved us.
“No matter what happens,” he said, “remember that I love you.”
It is probably the only time he has ever said he loved me like that. But the words aren’t what stick in my mind. What I remember most was what made me feel like he actually meant it. He had tears in his eyes. He had taken my hand into his and was holding it tightly, as if it would be the last time he would grip it (sadly, it was not, but that’s a whole other story). His face was completely void of his usual tense cynicism. It was soft and loving – for the first and last time in our relationship history, my father was allowing his love to flow without shame.

Those few seconds cost me years of therapy and self-deceit. It took me years to admit that he wasn’t that caring, emotional man. It took me even longer to face that underneath the cruelty, the constant criticism and denigration, there was, in fact, no loving father to be found.

Over the years, he would mumble, or spit “I love you” at me as one does during an argument when anything is fair game. But never again did I see that body language, feelings as raw as they were true, from the man who raised me with “emotions are a four-letter word.”

Silence is louder than words; even actions speak louder than the simple, easy sentences we are so used to deploying -- to get what we want, to appease others, to steer situations in our favour. There is nothing sacred about words. They are large cardboard cut-outs, clunky, clumsily painted blocks behind which we can easily hide – all it takes is a bit of imagination. We write them, say them, hear them, read them constantly. And as with anything else, the overexposure has made them worthless.

I like to think that I’m a woman of my word, that my word is worth something. But really, when my words keep changing, how can I remain loyal to only one?

I remember the moment I fell in love with India.

There is not much silence in India. In fact, I think that one moment is the closest I got. Maybe that is why it happened when it did, why I fell in love precisely then; when all the noise subsided, when the chaos got stripped away, the beauty was so magnificent; it was suddenly easy to become intoxicated by the magic of the country’s simple, regal splendour.

It had been a long day. I had spent most of it slowly meandering along the backwaters of Alleppey with a couple of very hungover Irish ladies, and later an American and a Finnish woman. The five of us had talked and laughed all day, as the boat had made its way through lakes and canals, winding through thick greenery, passing the locals as they washed themselves, their clothes and their animals along the banks, or waved at us – another over-enthusiastic, photo-hungry lot of tourists to pose for -- from their porches.

Amma’s ashram had been visible from far away as its pink towers were by far the tallest buildings in the area. The women from Ireland were going to keep making their way South to the beach, but the three of us had decided to disembark at the ashram. Unlike the other two, however, I would not be staying the night. My young travel companion, H, had stayed back at the hostel with food poisoning, so I was planning to head back to Alleppy. By boat, the trip had taken eight hours, but I had been told that the bus ride would be only two, which would allow me a little time to explore the ashram and experience the supposedly incredible energy of the Hugging Saint.

As we made our way to the main meditation hall, signs in all languages indicated all sorts of rules: where to put your shoes, where to go to the toilet, where to buy memorabilia, where to make phone calls. There was even a tourist center.

There were Westerners everywhere, dressed in venerating white, looking straight ahead with a mixture of purpose and New Age apathy. I felt I had landed in the centre of a flock of sheep that, by some miracle, had been transformed into human beings for a day or two. People roamed more than walked, drifting around with little direction. Many sentences around me started with, ended on, or had as their main function to praise Amma.

I had to admit that there was a strong energy coming from the large photograph at the end of the meditation hall. Even in 2D, she is powerful. But the love and kindness I saw in her eyes was a good few solar systems away from the machine that is the ashram.

When I bumped into the American woman and her Finish friend a few minutes later, I had to laugh at the expressions on their faces. Their horror was only slightly appeased when an electronic gong sounded, calling all guests to the main meditation hall. Amma was not there that day, but that didn’t alter the worship schedule.

Fighting against the stream of people I made my way back towards the river. By the time I had crossed the bridge, I was breathing normally again and no longer afraid of hyperventilating. I had been hoping to find some kind of spiritually enlightened community, inspiration, possibly something I could take home with me, an addition to my own journey, maybe even some sensible answers. Instead I had found shameless commercialism capitalising on people’s weakness, their search for meaning and direction. I knew where I was heading: as far away as possible, as quickly as my muddy flip-flops would take me.

“How do I get to the nearest town?”
The group of rickshaw drivers looked at each other. I could tell they were sizing me up both in terms of means as well as desperation. I won’t lie: I’m sure I looked like a chicken with a broken leg to a hungry fox.
“Seventy roupees, madam.”
He was the youngest of the lot, the boldest, the most arrogant. An earring dangled from his left ear like Captain Jack Sparrow of India minus the eyeliner. He raised one eyebrow, daring me to negotiate.
I was too tired, too spent, too saddened by how I had become a cash cow – even to the devoted, let alone those who made a living driving people like me around.
“Fine.” I sighed and wearily pulled myself in. It had been raining on-and-off throughout the day, and I didn’t like the look of the dark grey cloud that had draped itself over most of the sky.
The driver hopped behind his little steering wheel with glee and proceeded to zig zag happily for the next twenty minutes, between cattle, children, old women and other rickshaws, all the way to the next town.
He dropped me off at what he claimed was the bus station, although all I could see was a fire pit, a group of people standing around watching the blaze, and an elephant with a very thin man on its back and shackles around its four enormous legs.

I’ll skip the details of the other two buses other than to point out that, like the third one I took, the first two were rickety, loud and overcrowded. Unlike the last bus I took that night, however, the first and second ones were also quite abrupt, unfriendly, stuffy and generally unpleasant.

Maybe by the third one, I’d gotten used to feeling like a sardine and smelling foul body odour around me. Maybe it had stopped bothering me that there was little, if any, regard for what I would term my private space in any other part of the world. Or maybe the world had shifted ever so slightly by the time I sat down for the final part of my journey back to Alleppy, where I hoped young H had recovered from her bout of food poisoning and had not made off with my belongings.

Whatever it was, as I hoisted myself into the last remaining seat on the old blue bus, I found myself hoping that it would clear out so that I could sit by the window and zone out for a few moments. In India, there are people everywhere, and they are always talking – either at you, over you or through you. I was exhausted, and would have probably given my vocal chords for a few hours alone to sit on my couch watching Sex And The City reruns.

At the next stop, almost everyone got off. Though the bus filled up quickly, I was able to slide to the far end of three-person seat where I could look out the glass-less window, and breathe deeply, enjoying the wind in my hair. As we continued along the unpaved roads, and the sun started to set, it was as if all of India was starting to prepare for the fall of night.

The sky turned a darker hue, the people on the streets started to slow down. Inside houses and stores, the bustle was replaced with a hush. Fires were being lit and the scent of food, the warm spices that make up the local cuisine, was everywhere.

Next to me, a young Hindu woman struggled to keep hold of her daughter. The little girl couldn’t have been more than five or six, but she was so exhausted that she kept falling asleep and hitting her head against the seat in front of us as her mother, too tired herself, kept losing her grip.

“She can lie on me if you like” I told the mother.
I’d gotten so used to the constant cacophony of sounds that I hadn’t noticed that nobody on the bus was talking. When I spoke, everyone around me turned to stare. The mother obviously didn’t understand English as she too was simply looking back at me.
“Here” I patted the bag in my lap.
Before I’d finished gesturing, the mother had already dropped her daughter’s head on me. A few seconds later, they were both sound asleep, the mother’s head lolling towards my shoulder, the daughter’s cupped in my lap. What could they have gone through to be that tired?

As the bus drove along, the sun setting outside, past the loud motors and the roar of generators, a silence fell. Though technically it was noise – constant hums, yells, coughing of faulty mechanics, animals belching, men grunting – it was silence. India was heaving a sigh of relief as yet another day had ended in relative peace. Inside the houses we passed, families had arrived home and were sitting around tables, the children playing together, the women stirring pots, and kneading dough. The people on the bus held on to the railings and bobbed back and forth with the rhythm of the squeaky springs, calm in the knowledge that they too would soon be home. All of a sudden, there was no need to rush. And in my lap, a beautiful little girl moved her lips as if she was saying something very important in her dreamless sleep.

That was the moment I fell in love with India. Silently, completely, fully. It was the moment I understood why people go back over and over again, even though they are robbed and prodded, even though they return to the West with worms and parasites, even though there are so many other places in the world that they would love to see. For just a moment, I felt the existence of God.


One of the things I love most about cooking is its meditative quality. Some dishes require speed and constant attention while others allow long, lingering thoughts to swirl around my head as I tend to the minutiae of preparation.

Last week, I found myself with three bags of broad beans. D and I receive a box of organic vegetables every week from one of those farm-box schemes that supports small, local businesses and delivers seasonal produce to your door.

For two weeks in a row, I had unpacked the box, sighing at the damn broad beans. What was I going to do with them? I had been scared away by the supposed high-maintenance food that people say they are. This stems from the double work required when cooking them. First they have to be removed from their shells. Then they are boiled in order to be able to get rid of the outer coating on the actual bean, which also has to be removed. It sounded terribly dull and time consuming. Still, I hate throwing away food, so I was going to have to do something… and soon… rather than letting them rot.

As my family were visiting, I decided it would be a good opportunity to try something new. My grandmother calls my cooking “interesting” (sometimes this is meant in the good sense, though not always. But at least she is polite about it)

My mother and I peeled the first layer off the beans. Though we can talk for Britain, we quickly lapsed into silence, both enjoying each other’s company as well as the soothing feeling of doing the mindless, repetitive work. For a few minutes we talked about how calming it was, but we soon returned to concentrating on our fingers and letting our minds wander.

I had explained to my grandmother that it wasn’t a big deal or a big mess, that I was using her presence as an excuse for the “patchkerei”, as she put it (loosely translated, this means “a lot of work”)

A quick search on the Internet brought up a Moroccan soup called bissara. It sounded delicious – perfect for a rainy, cold summer evening in London.

This is my adaptation of a few recipes I found on various sites on the Internet.

A large bowl or plate of broad bean, shelled and peeled*
Water or broth**
4 cloves of garlic roughly chopped
3 T olive oil (I would have used argan oil had I thought of it then)
1 t cumin
½ t sweet paprika
½ t hot paprika
Juice of half a small lemon.
Dash of cayenne
fresh mint leaves finely chopped to use as garnish
salt and pepper to taste

Once the beans are shelled, peeled, etc., return them to the water or broth they originally boiled in and bring it to a boil once again. There should be enough water to cover them and then some.
As it boils, add the garlic cloves, salt and pepper and turn the heat to low low low.
(a froth will start form at the top of the mixture. This can be skimmed off with a spoon)

In a separate bowl, mix the olive oil, cumin, both paprikas, cayenne and the lemon juice. Allow the mixture to sit for a while so the flavours have a chance to hang out and get to know each other a little bit.

When the beans have simmered for about ten to fifteen minutes and are soft, blend the mixture together so it becomes a proper soup or puree (depending on the bean to water ratio) – no chunks should remain.

Serve the soup in small bowls and spoon the oil mixture on top. Garnish with a dash of fresh mint leaves.

* As previously mentioned, the first stage is to remove the large green peel so that you remain with only the beans. These are then put in boiling water or broth (not too much water as you want to use that same water to make the soup and it’s important to retain as much flavour as possible) for about five minutes. Once boiled, remove the beans and blanch them in a bowl of ice to stop the cooking process so you can remove the outside layer of the bean. What remains is a bright green bean.

** I would use vegetable or chicken broth but I’m sure beef would complement this dish very nicely as well

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