My attack days

I used to attack people once upon a time. You seem shocked. Don’t be. Nobody got hurt. I will get to it but if you read my blogs, you know I like to ramble before I get to the point.

We lived in New Delhi, India for 6 happy years right after our marriage. Let me tell you, New Delhi apart from other things, was my food nirvana. Sagar Restaurant in Defense Colony for South Indian food, Pindi for North Indian food, Kareem’s in Old Delhi for Mughlai khana, paratha gali for parathas…… I could go on and on. Not only were there fantastic restaurants that kept me in constant food coma, I made friends who fed me authentic North Indian food and on top of that, I had a lovely woman staying with us who cooked all the Bengali food that my heart desired. Life could not have been better.

Then we got the news from Sean’s organization: “Pack up your life, folks. You are moving back.” We moved back to the US.

Moving back to US meant searching for a house and fast since Sahana was going to start kindergarten in the fall of that year. After looking for what seemed like forever we settled for a house that we liked. But I had questions. Nope, not about house inspection or radon level. That was Sean’s department. My first question to the home seller was how far was the library. She said it was just 2 miles away and if I did not mind a long hike, I could walk there. I was sold. The second question, however, I knew she could not answer so I did not ask. Where was the closest Indian grocery store? You can take the girl out of India, you can not take the love of Indian food out of the girl.

We did find 4 Indian grocery stores within a 5 mile radius of our house. I bought the staples, made North Indian cuisine but my soul wanted comfort. It wanted authentic Bengali food. It wanted alu posto (potato curry with poppy seeds), shorshe r jhaal (gravy made with mustard seeds). In India, I never cooked those dishes, they were cooked for me. I had no idea how to crush poppy seeds without sheel nora, or make a smooth but not bitter paste of mustard seeds for the mustard based gravy. How do I describe sheel nora? Bengali version of heavy duty mortal and pestle? Here is image taken from Google:

Life Without Alu?: Shil Nora (Sil Batta)– stone spice grinder

Our moving in to this house is a story in itself which deserves another blog post. Suffice it to say, I was a few months pregnant when we started living in our current house. And my desire for alu posto and shorsher jhaal took the form of a craving of epic proportions. I still did not know how to crush poppy seeds. In those days I was not aware of the amazing kitchen gadgets that are out in the market. I did not have much experience in the kitchen to begin with. But I WANTED to know. I NEEDED to know. So this is where my ‘attack’ story starts.

The first attack happened in a local Sears. Sean, little Sahana and I were at Sears buying an appliance when I heard Bengali being spoken near me. I whipped my head around to see who was talking in my mother tongue. A few feet away from us was this couple who were deep in conversation about their purchase. They were speaking to each other in Bengali. Without a second thought, I left my husband and little daughter, walked right up to the couple and asked, quite unnecessarily, “Apnara Bangali?” (You all are Bengali?) Well, they were speaking in Bangla to each other, of course they were Bengali.

They barely had time to smile weakly and ask me if I was one too, when I launched into how I am new to the area, I need to crush poppy seeds and mustard seeds. Did they know a good way to do it?

I chuckle now, wondering what they thought of me then. You need to understand, though, I was pregnant, I had the cravings and I think I was longing to reach out to something familiar, something comforting in my new land and in my new state.

I believe they told me how to make a paste and also the tip about pulsing the mustard with some salt so the paste does not become bitter. It was many years ago so I don’t recall why, however, I do remember asking several unsuspecting Bengali immigrants what their trick was to make a smooth paste of ‘posto’ and ‘shorshe’. There were several other ‘attacks’ before I found myself on a strong footing when it came to ‘posto bata’ (ground poppy seeds).

I eventually bought a coffee grinder to grind my precious seeds and also a small magic bullet which I do not let anybody touch. While I mastered making smooth paste of posto, my fresh mustard paste always turns out bitter. I have tried using salt, I have tried using a green chilli. I am a failure in that department. So I use mustard powder instead. It is a poor substitute but it works in this foreign land. I have my fill of pure mustard sauce, lovingly pasted (not in a sheel nora anymore, too much work) in a mixer, when I go back to Kolkata.

I smile now when I think about those new, ‘fresh off the boat” days. I did live in US for about a year, right after our marriage, before Sean got transferred to a position in India. When we moved back after 6 years of living in New Delhi, I did not have culture shocks. The novelty was more about how to adjust to life in the suburbs, navigate the education system here and how to nurture and parent my child in a society, of which I knew very little about. And also how to crush poppy seeds and mustard, how to bring back a whiff of home.

Off to visit the Mayans – Day 2, Uxmal.

The second day started with Ryan loudly ‘whispering’ to Sean at the crack of dawn, ‘Dad, Dad, I am really, really hungry!!’ And when Ryan is hungry, he is worse than Eric Carle’s ‘The very hungry caterpillar’. We got up and pattered around the room, getting ready for the day. The parents tried to be quiet to let Sahana sleep a while longer while Ryan tried to make as much noise as possible to wake her up! Soon enough, we heard a dying pterodactyl groan from under the covers:

‘It is 6:30 in the morning!! Why are you all walking around?? Why are you even awake? I disown all three of you! Let me sleep!!’

Sahana groaned and moaned while the wicked brother giggled and chuckled. Finally, she got out of bed just to tackle him to the ground for being a pest, got ready and came down to breakfast with us.

After a breakfast of huevos (eggs), beans, cereals, papaya, banana and cafe (for me), we slung our bag packs on our shoulders, went to find our vehicle Escargot and embarked upon our journey to Uxmal – 67 Kms away. And this is the gift we received for our endeavor.


As Escargot ate up the kilometers on an empty two lane highway, all four of us quietly basked in the beauty of the sun kissed day, the young, verdant green creating a foliage over our heads, the occasional farmer by the road tending to his own farm. The journey took us less than an hour and a half to get to Uxmal, which, in Sean’s opinion was the best of them all. Sean had visited the same area twenty five years ago as a young backpacker.

I got my camera out as we entered the site but the children forgot about the pyramids because they met him……or her. I really can’t be sure.


We named him/her Sultan/a. The iguana population distracted Ryan and Sahana while I stood in front of this with my mouth open.


And to put the size in perspective


The Pyramid of the Soothsayer, also called The pyramid of the Sorcerer.

I think the legend associated with the pyramid is most interesting. An alux (aloosh) is a creature with a body of a baby and the face of an old man born out of egg. The common belief was (probably the folklore still exists) that these were spirits of old gods driven away from temples, taking revenge on non-Yucetecs. The legend, according to ‘Yucatan & Mayan Mexico’ goes something like this:

When the story began, Uxmal was a humble place, with nothing like the grandeur it later attained. It was ruled over by an old King who lived in the fear of prophecy that he would be dethroned by a new lord, a dwarf, and this lord would herald his arrival by beating on a drum. Now, there also lived a woman, a witch, who did not have any children but pined for one. She found an iguana egg, which she brought back home and cared for. Eventually a baby was born out of that egg. The baby could speak as soon as he was born but stopped growing after a year of his birth. He was an alux, the Dwarf. One day he found a drum and started beating. Panicked, the king sent his army to capture the drum beater and be brought to him. The king set the dwarf some seemingly impossible tasks, which the dwarf agreed to do provided the king matched his efforts. The king challenged the dwarf to build a house overnight that had to be higher than any house in Uxmal – which the dwarf accomplished. The Pyramid of the Sorcerer was built overnight thus. Finally, the crucial test was them both hitting each other with giant hammer. The Dwarf’s mother placed a magical tortilla on her son’s head but the king’s head was unprotected and therefore smashed. The Dwarf became the new ruler and the prophecy was fulfilled.

Although Uxmal has several glyph inscriptions and stelae, they have not provided a complete history of the region like Palenque. There is a lot of information on the history of Uxmal and the architecture of the Puuc region but since the blog post is a personal journal, I will steer clear of facts and history. Due to the number of visitors, they do not allow climbing on the Pyramid of the Sorcerer anymore. However, one can still climb the steep steps of the Temple of the Mayor and enjoy the view atop the monument. One can see the sweeping vista of the ruins and the terrain adjoining the ruins. The day we chose to travel to Uxmal, the sky was blinding blue, the sun was sweet and strong and we truly felt at the top of the world as we gazed far out from top of the The Tempelo Mayor.


Climbing up the Temple of the Mayor.

By the time we explored the big structures, went up and down the Temple of the Mayor, the children were hot and tired. Even the iguanas seemed to lose their capacity to entertain. So we brought them back to the entrance, sat them down in the shade, bought them ice cream, handed them water bottles as well as our backpacks and like any responsible parent, we took off with a reassuring ‘Stay here, we will be right back!’ (Please do not call child services on me, they are older and responsible enough to be left alone 🙂 )! There were a few sections we had not explored and Sean and I are that type of curious people who like to see it all!

Uxmal was magnificent, the day was glorious. It was less touristy and Uxmal had a grandeur that demanded respect and awe. The relative silence of the place let us do just that. We looked up at the monuments in awe and marveled at the ingenuity, depth of astronomical knowledge, artistry and vision of the ancient Mayans.

I turned around and bade farewell to the majestic temples and sites of Uxmal as Escargot got on the road to take us back to Merida. But stomachs were growling at this point and lunch seemed imperative. On the way back, we discovered a thatch roofed (palapas) restaurant, more like the roadside Dhabas in India and we decided to pull in. That turned out to be one of the best decisions we made on this trip. The staff was simply wonderful, very cheerful and proud of their heritage and cuisine. Our server took us back to their garden and showed us the chillies and other vegetables that they grew themselves. And then he showed us the typical regional way of cooking meat – Pibil. They put the meat – chicken, pork, beef with seasoning in a stainless steel container and buried it underground and cooked it for hours. He took out a container while we watched. The meat was so tender it seemed to be falling off the bone. I, of course, ordered that.



Uxmal, the day, the food, the people – all of these made me so deliriously happy that I wanted to convey to the world and especially to the nice staff of the restaurant how wonderful everything was. The trouble was , I wanted to convey all this in their own language!! The delightful joint thrilled me so much that I unknowingly brought in rudimentary French in my very, very broken Spanish as I tried to bond with our server. I got embarrassed nudges from my daughter as I said ‘moi’ instead of ‘mi’ and ‘tres bien’ instead of ‘muy bien’ .

‘Mama!!! That is French!’ She whispered. Typical teenage embarrassment over parental faux pas.

‘Shush!’ I said, undeterred. ‘Both are romance languages.’

And continued the communication with a lot of smiles, hand gestures and Franish (French/Spanish). The server and I did just fine! While I bonded, Sahana nudged and Sean smiled, Ryan sipped his Coca cola and kept sticking his tongue out saying, “I am drunk!”

The afternoon found me by the poolside writing in my journal, Ryan splashing in the water, Sahana sunbathing and Sean snoozing in the hotel room. The plan in the evening was to explore Merida. After the sun set and the heat lessened we walked around the capital city of Yucatan, Merida. It is a quaint city, with interesting architecture of vibrant hues. Bright pinks, fluorescent yellows, strong greens, deep blues on buildings seemed to work very well in that city. I loved the brick streets, the parks, the beautiful cathedral, the call of the friendly hawkers, “Amigo, almost free!”


We came back to the hotel after dinner and went straight to bed. Day 3 would take us to Chichen Itza and then southward bound to the beaches of Cancun, Playa Del Carmen and Akumal.

Sore finger continues to swell, continues to throb, continues to change colors in different shades of unhealthy green. But ‘after all, tomorrow is another day’…