The thick and thin of dal.


After about a month of sneaking around with my boyfriend, I finally disclosed to my parents that I was seeing someone. The ‘someone’ happens to be from America, his skin color is white and the only Bengali he knows is “Ami tomake bhalobashi” (I love you) that was taught to him by some mischievous coworkers to get him into trouble. The first reaction was of utter surprise. The rule following me was breaking all kinds of rules of romance. I was never told not to fall in love, so “seeing” someone was not the problem. In fact I was told it is best to choose my own partner if I could. Well, I took their advice to heart and then some. I chose someone from outside my state, my country, my religion, my culture. Anyway, I digress.

After the initial shock, I was asked to invite this man to our house. I have already written a blog on that so I will not elaborate. Today I want to write about dal (red lentils). Sean soon became a regular at our dinner table. I remember he was given a knife and a fork with rice, dal, alur dom and some other vegetable. He moved those aside and used his hand to eat like the rest of us. That earned him a lot of brownie points. “Look, he is just like us!” my family often exclaimed.

They spoiled him though. After several experiments, it was established that he loves a very thick dal, tempered with a spicy masala. That kind of dal or masala masoor is more of a North Indian dish. We, Bengalis, like our masoor dal very thin, tempered with dried red chili, kalo jeere (nigella seeds), turmeric powder and slit green chilis. Sean ate at our house at least 4 nights a week and masala masoor was made for him ALL THE TIME!!! When I complained I was told he is the guest and one should make food that the guest likes. All I did was grumble.

Fast forward to our first year of marriage. After eating boring food cooked by Sean for about six months, I took matters into my own hands. I learnt to cook Indian food. Sean praised my initial attempts at making dal and sabji to high heavens so I would take up the mantle of cooking for the family. Since I am a foodie and I realized I enjoyed the task of cooking, I did become the primary cook. Sean is a vegetarian and I am concerned about his protein intake, I make a pot of dal for the family often. It is always thick masala masoor. Unfortunately, my 2 kids love the true Bengali dal which they eat when they go back to Kolkata and they LOVE that. They always complain I make the dal of their dad’s choice and not what the others in the family like. They are not wrong. If you look at the 2 recipes below, you will see that the masala masoor does seem more flavorful, and folks may turn up their nose at the Bengali patla ‘mushur’ dal but trust me, patla ‘mushur’ dal, jhirijhiri alubhaja (finely cut potato sticks), gondhoraj lebu (lime juice) and perhaps a piece of fried hilsa fish or at least a boiled egg is one of the most delicious food to a Bengali. Soul food!

Masala Masoor Dal.

Boil 1 cup of masoor dal (red lentils with about 3 cups of water. Add water if needed to reach desired consistency. It generally takes about 20 to 25 minutes.

In a different pan, heat oil, add a cup of chopped onions and fry them till golden brown.

Add 1 tbsp of ginger garlic paste to the fried onion. Cook till the raw smell is gone, about 20 seconds.

Add one and a half cup of chopped tomatoes. Cook the tomatoes in medium heat till oil separates.

Add a tsp of turmeric, one and a half tsp of coriander cumin powder, half a tsp of red chili powder and 1 tsp of garam masala to the tomato mixture.

Mix well and stir the mixture for about 5 or 6 minutes.

Add the mixture to boiled dal.

Add salt to taste.

Garnish with chopped cilantro, if so desired.

Serve with roti or rice (or eat this as a soup).

Masala masoor

Patla Mushur dal

Boil 1 cup of masoor dal in about 4 or 5 cups of water. There should be adequate water even when the lentils are boiled.

In a separate pan, heat a tbsp of oil.

When the oil is nice and hot, add a tsp of nigella seeds (kalonji or kaalo jeere).

Once they splutter, which they will start immediately in hot oil, add 2 dried chili.

Stir once and add the oil infused with nigella seeds and chili into boiled dal.

Add turmeric, slit green chilis (optional) and salt to taste.

Simmer for 10 minutes and your patla (thin) mushur dal is ready.

This is how we eat patla dal. We take a mound of rice on our plate. Then we make a hole in the middle of the rice and serve the dal in that hole. Then we mix the rice and dal, squeeze some lemon juice on to it and eat it with thinly sliced potato sticks.

Patla mushur dal

Just writing this down transports me back home. Make both types and then tell me if you are Team thick daal or Team thin daal.

Way back when…


I firmly believe it is always a good idea to start at the beginning. For instance, the day I caught a glimpse of the back of a tall, well-built man at the book corner of an upscale store in a five star hotel in Kolkata, where I worked at the time. The man must have felt the brush of the pallu of my saree on his arm, or the soft gentle swish of air as I passed by him to the cash register, he turned back and smiled at me. Months of customer service training made me immediately flex my facial muscles into a responding grin. But then I smiled a real smile. Maybe I smiled because his smile was so genuine and warm, maybe because he had kind eyes or just maybe because I was twenty-four and a very handsome man just smiled at me.

I finished my job at the register and went back to my department in the mezzanine floor and promptly forgot about the man downstairs. In about ten minutes, he came up. He needed a gift for a wedding he had to attend, it was a Sunday and all the stores in the city were closed. I gave him some suggestions, of course, but surprisingly, the conversation gradually shifted from gift ideas to us – my Master’s program, university, job, likes, preferences, his work, education et all. I do not remember what all we talked about, but I do remember we talked for about two and a half hours. My poor manager sent a coworker up to my floor to make sure I was coping fine with a foreigner. I also remember, after talking for close to an hour, he asked me if I was married. When I said no, he extended his arm, gripped my hand in a firm handshake and gave me his name. I tease him to this day that if I WAS married, would he have not told me his name? He says he wanted to make sure the coast was clear for him to pursue farther. Fair enough!

Before he left, he handed me his card and asked me to call him sometime. The cards that I got at that job generally ended up in the trash can. His, I kept. After a couple of weeks, while searching for change in my purse, I came up with his card. I remembered the feeling of happiness and excitement in me when he was talking, the ready smile and the twinkling green eyes. I made a decision, very unnatural for me. I decided to give him a call. I am naturally shy, not prone to taking chances or making the first move. But I wanted to see him again.

I could almost hear the pounding of my heart as I dialed the number and heard the phone ring on the other end. And then his deep voice boomed into my ears. I managed a squeaky hello and a stuttering ‘I am Piyali!’

The response to that was, “Which Piyali?”

Oh, the embarrassment!!! I felt a flush of warmth creeping upon my face as shame swept over me. He didn’t remember me! I wanted to hang up immediately, instead I calmly mentioned I was Piyali from the ______! My voice didn’t waver but I was close to tears at the humiliation of being so forgettable. He recovered quickly. He even managed enthusiasm in his voice, which he now claims, was genuine. And then dropped the second bomb.

“Do you want me to take you out for dinner sometime?”

Do I want him to???? No I did not. Girls in parochial Kolkata in mid nineties did not go out to dinner with unknown men. All I wanted was to see him again, maybe at the store, in a safe environment, among a lot of people!!! My degradation, at that point, was complete. I politely said, “No thank you. I just called to say hello. You have a good day!”

I was bitterly disappointed but also strangely relieved that I could close that chapter and move on. His interest in me that night meant nothing. The next day, he was back at the store. And the next, and the day after that. He kept coming back. I was thrilled to bits, reveling in all the attention and the cherishing the novelty of knowing a man from a different country.

Then one day he asked me, “So, when are you going to the Book fair with me?” Not “Will you go to the book fair with me” but “When….” I was caught off guard. I couldn’t go out with him. My virtue as a middle class, rule following Bengali woman was at stake if I was seen with a man, a white man at that! Yet, in my heart, I desperately wanted to. I broke the unwritten rules yet again, I gave in. Our first date was the Kolkata Book fair, standing in line to get ticket, walking leisurely to the book stalls, stopping to see the local artists paint pictures, pointing out the ones we liked the best, laughing at our dust laden shoes, talking of our idea of a perfect life partner, telling him I never wish to get married, wishing his wife good luck when he said he wanted six children.

Our courtship was beautiful. Our rendezvous were covert, romantic and thrilling. For the demure, rule follower me, dating was a wild adventure in itself, dating a foreigner was beyond belief. He waited for me in front of the RamKrishna Mission in Golpark, outside my Mass Communication classes, he came by the hotel at night to pick me up and drop me home in his car. We walked along the Lake and the Maidan, we sat by the musical fountains and I talked to him about Rabindra Nath Tagore, sung him a few of my favorite songs. We ate ice cream at Scoops by the river Ganga and watched the sun go down by the Howrah bridge. We soaked in the sight of the pinkish hue of the Victoria memorial as the last rays of Kolkata sun illuminated the splendid marble architecture. Kolkata is a city where I was born, I have many pleasant memories of it. But the streets of Kolkata, that I roamed with the special man by my side will always have a special place in my heart. It was on those streets that we explored each other fully and discovered each other’s thoughts, views, core values. We found commonality and we found differences. We learnt, we grew and we fell in love.

Almost seventeen years and two children later, we are here today. Silver highlights in my black hair, and there is stylish grey around his temples. The love notes that we used to write to each other every day have been replaced by grocery lists, sticky notes saying ‘there is food in the oven’, quick texts saying when the kids need to be picked up and from where. I mourn the loss of the wild rush of the romance of the first few years. What happened to those days of listening to love songs, day dreaming, walking the streets of Kolkata and later Baltimore, endlessly, completely lost in each other, sighing over poetry of Pablo Neruda, candle lit dinners and serenades? G.B Shaw is spot on when he says:

When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part. ~G.B. Shaw, Getting Married, 1908.

We did not remain in that excited, abnormal and exhausting condition continuously. Who does, after seventeen years? The most violent, most insane, most delusive and most transient of passions have given way to steady rhythm of gentle companionship and a deeper bond of trust, love and understanding. We have both learnt to recognize and appreciate the different manifestations of love that is not limited to love notes, love songs, moon sightings and passionate sighs, but goes way beyond that to make one feel truly cherished.

Some nights I come back home from work to find him fast asleep or semi asleep. I open the refrigerator – my dinner is waiting to be heated up, the dishes are done and the kitchen is sparkly clean. I feel completely loved then – more than love letters, diamond rings or flowers could ever make me feel. I wake up in the morning after a night of snow to find the driveway already shoveled and my car cleaned so I can get out without worries. Most mornings, I feel him covering me up with my kicked away blanket and tucking me in so I can get a few more minutes of sleep as he gets up to do his exercise. In my semi awake state I hear him softly shutting my door and whispering to the children, “Don’t bother mommy. Let her sleep in!” Children, schedules, home works, activities, jobs take up most of our time these days. Mortgage, bills, college funds have replaced thoughts of Neruda, Dali, Simon and Garfunkel. Most days we don’t feel it, yet some days, while taking a hike among nature, when we have a moment to pause and take stock, we look at each other and find fulfillment. We are in it together, we built our life together, creating a family, nurturing our young ones and taking care of each other in sickness and health.

Despite all our responsibilities, I still find time to put my arm in the crook of his elbow when we go for a walk, he still makes me feel like a giggly girl when he flashes a smile and teases, we still banter like we used to which seem very amusing to the children, he still calls me out to show a splendor of nature – like the sunlight creating a rainbow in a spiderweb on the side of our house. I still don’t enjoy any experience to the fullest unless I have shared it with him. It was simply wonderful to be young and recklessly in love. I am so glad we have those memories. But I am indeed glad to grow and mature in this relationship with my spouse where a few stolen moments in the morning before the craziness starts see us through the entire day.

I love being married for all the right reasons. I love the man in my life for the man that he is. I love the feeling of being the only one for him. I also love being married for the reason Rita Rudner says here.

It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life. ~Rita Rudner

Indeed!

I am going to go ahead and say it ‘I lucked out!’


My husband and I had to cross several cultural barriers to start understanding each other. I may have mentioned in my earlier blogs, we had several disagreements at the initial stages of our relationship. It was mainly due to our cultural differences. One big divide was how we expressed our feelings for each other.

I grew up in a semi conservative, protected environment where voicing your feelings was frowned upon. In romantic movies, two flowers coming close together was symbolic of the intimacy shared by the protagonists. A lot of silent, amorous  messages were passed through eyes. I grew up with the romantic notion that if my partner really loved me, there would be no need for words to communicate, he should be able to read my mind through my looks, decipher my expressions and know what I mean. This notion, in my particular case, flopped. My husband, I am sure, wanted to bang his head in frustration, because he didn’t understand why I was mad at him…again. ‘Tell me, please, what did I do wrong this time?’ Finally, I realized the power of words! Now I let him have it (exaggerating a bit) , he probably wants those days of silent treatment back.

He, on the other hand, embarrassed me numerous times in front of my immediate and extended family by professing his love for me openly. My parents and my uncles and aunts were uncomfortable at this display of verbal affection. My cousins and friends loved this novelty, they were amused and somewhat perplexed at the same time. I reminded him often not to verbalize in front of people how much he is in love with me, it was simply not done in India (this was almost 16 years ago)! The poor man, a white guy from a different culture and country, was desperate to reassure my family that his intentions about me were honest. He was also trying to fit in but in the wrong way.

Although, I pleaded with him not to make comments like ”Oh she is beautiful’ when one of my cousins said ‘she is too thin’ I liked
them. I felt cherished when he told my family and his family how much I mean to him, while I still cringed outwardly. Slowly, I changed too. After being married to him, I realized it is actually a wonderful and honest feeling when I acknowledged that I love my husband. India, has opened up a lot more when it comes to the matter of heart, but when I go back I still notice some reticence in admitting ‘Yes, I am in love with my spouse. Yes, I am lucky. Yes, s/he is handsome or beautiful!’

On Facebook, some dear friends (all Indian) were discussing what qualities they love in a man. Sense of humor, sensitivity, intellect, charm et all. After going through the posts, I realized, these were
the qualities, I, too, looked for in a man when I was a young woman. And I found them all in my husband. I mentioned that in the chat. I said, ‘I looked for all that in a man too, I got lucky!’ I was subjected to some good-natured ridicule for that. I was amused at the reaction, it seemed appreciating one’s spouse was still not a ‘done’ thing amongst many.

A couple of days later, I saw a post of one of my American friends where she said how lucky she was to have a wonderful husband and how much she appreciates what he does for her and how special he makes her feel. I know the couple very well, one can see the love and friendship they share. She was not ashamed or embarrassed to let the world know that she loves and appreciates her spouse. Her post made me smile.

I come from a country which has many things to offer to the world. My country is rich in heritage which I am proud to carry and hopefully pass on to my children. I have also had the good fortune to adopt a country which has a lot to offer and teach the world. Here, I have learnt, amongst other things, to appreciate another human, my spouse in this case, and not be ashamed to admit that I lucked out the day we chose each other and decided to spend our lives together. Life is a journey, people say. On this journey we can leave that we don’t need, and pick up new lessons that will make this journey, if not smoother, at least more beautiful and joyful. What is more joyful than to admit that the one who is walking by my side on this journey is the most special person to me? Why on earth should I not say it?

Dating a white guy.


I started dating my “white” husband in mid nineties in a very parochial (I think) place called Kolkata, India. A white man with a brown woman was a rare sight in those days in my city so we got our fair share of snide comments and stares, bumping-into-telephone-pole kind of stares. We roamed the streets of Kolkata, the gardens of the National Library, the campus of my university, exchanging ideas and learning about our vastly different cultures in the musty yet magical Kolkata evenings. We even sat on the grounds of the infamous Victoria Memorial (supposedly anti-social activity is rampant there in the evenings), till the ‘peace keepers’ felt we were disturbing the sensitive morality of the city by sitting next to each other and drove us away, along with other amorous couples. I believe, it was there that I was called a “lady of the night” keeping company of a white man. I have to defend my earlier statement of Kolkata being extremely parochial here, where ever we went, we met a relative, a friend or an acquaintance of mine. And since I was sneaking out to meet my boyfriend, that was a ‘slight’ inconvenience.  I don’t even want to talk about what happened when one of my aunts saw me walking down the street with Sean, holding hands.

Our romance survived all the surreptitious rendezvous, or in other words, sneaking around and we decided to take the plunge. My wedding was the first Catholic mass I ever attended. Growing up, I had dreamed of getting married in a white wedding dress, they looked so ethereal and beautiful in movies. Yet when the time and opportunity came to get married in one, I opted to wear a sari. I got married in Catholic ceremony, wearing a golden and black sari,  Sean looked dashing in a tux. After the homily, the priest started giving the communion. I followed Sean’s lead through out the entire mass, like a two step dance routine. I kneeled when he did, stood up when he did, sat when he sat. So when he extended his hand to recieve the communion, I did the same. I am pretty sure Sean  pinched me then, to deter my enthusiasm, although he denies it now. Instead of giving me Communion,  the embarrassed priest put his hand on my head and blessed me. I was slightly miffed as I went through the rest of the ceremony.

Catholic wedding.

It was important to Sean to incorporate some Hindu traditions along with the Catholic. For him our marriage was not just a union of two people but also a union of two cultures and two religions. He wanted to know “what  can we do that is a Hindu wedding ritual”? How would I know? My focus in a Hindu wedding was always on fun, frolic and food. Did I ever pay attention to the rituals?   So we did the very basic sindur ceremony where the bridegroom puts vermillion powder on the bride’s forehead, after we exchanged rings. I was just ecstatically happy to sign the marriage certificate and be done with it, but the rituals, both Catholic and Hindu, were important and meaningful to my husband, I respected that. Even the euphoria of marrying the sweetest guy didn’t take away the feeling of being slighted by the priest. I asked Sean why the heck was I denied the bread that everyone got, that too on my own wedding! That was NOT a nice way to treat a bride! He explained I had to be a Catholic to receive the body of Christ. I felt discriminated against, but let it slide. Later, when we went to enter the Temple of Jagannath in Puri, in India, Sean was denied entry for being a non-Hindu, I was appalled again. How can one be kept out from the house of God?

We decided to go to Cyprus and Israel for our honeymoon. Cyprus, because Sean had a meeting there, and Israel, because we felt it would be symbolic to go to a place where a new religion began, like our new relationship. Getting into Cyprus was easy, those island people were pretty laid back about the difference in the skin color between my husband and I. But Israel? Oh, we confused them. Those young immigration officers weren’t sure we were telling the truth when we said we were husband and wife. I have no idea why our relationship  would  matter to Israeli immigration, anyway! First, here was a brown woman and a white man, who claimed they were married, second, my passport said my maiden name and third, we didn’t carry our marriage certificate. They detained us for more than three hours along with some unfortunate Palestinian travelers, and asked us the same questions again and again, “Who is he to you?” and “Who is she to you?” “Why did you choose to layover in so and so place?” etc etc. It went on and on, till Sean smiled and said, “No matter how many times you ask, the answer is not going to change, she is my wife, I am her husband, we are here for our honeymoon. And why we chose to fly the way we did? Because we got a better deal with the airlines. Do you have any other ideas?” Finally, they let us go with the warning that we should stay in Israel and not stray into the West Bank.  We, of course, promptly forgot the advice of not straying into West Bank, Sean’s organization has an office in Ramallah which we visited along with several other places.

Painted white at our Indian wedding.

A year after our Catholic wedding, we went back to India to have an Indian wedding. My country, I am sad to say,  has a white skin fetish. Abiding by ‘the whiter the better’ rule, women spend a fortune on fairness creams and lotions to lighten their skin tone. Being dark is akin to being ugly, in most cases. When the beauty parlors do bridal make up, they lather foundation on the face of the bride. The face and neck turn very white while the other exposed body parts remain the original skin color, brown mainly. The same was done to me. Sean saw me at the reception hall and exclaimed, ‘What have they done to you? If I wanted to marry a white woman, I would have found one in the US!’ Between smiling and greeting over three hundred people I reproached my husband for reverse discrimination. What does skin color matter, white or brown, he is head over heels in love with me for my inner beauty and he better remember that!

We had our share of misunderstandings mainly due to our cultural differences. My poor husband, trying to be romantic (????) referred to me as “chick” one day and I let him have it! I thought the word was insulting and demeaning, to him it was complimentary. He didn’t know what hit him. Finally, when he figured out what caused this outburst he burst out laughing. Chick was supposedly a cute endearing term that was meant to convey the woman is young, attractive….whatever!  There were others, I didn’t get the humor of Saturday Night Live, or Jerry Seinfeld for that matter. And when he said, “Are you bringing your pocketbook?” I gave him a blank stare. What in the world is a pocket book?  He didn’t understand my Indian English and phrases sometimes, especially when I used phrases like “Come on, don’t give me that cock and bull story!” “Cock and what?????”

Most of the times we laughed about it and learned about each other’s culture. Sometimes we got into fights and argued about who is right.  At the expense of sounding like a Fisher Price advertisement, we literally laughed, learned and grew together.  And then came our golden skinned children….How they dealt with their ethnicity is another story. Sort of a sequel to this one.