Lucky me

IMG_4034In truth, I would have happily bought every single one of these shoes, being something of a shoe-a-holic, but fiscal constraints held me back. And besides, in the Scottish climate, how many opportunities would I have to wear any of these more than once in my remaining lifetime?

The shoes and I were in Jaipur, taking part in the twin-cities Bookaroo book festival (well, I was, but the shoes were just hanging out on the street), and we had a free afternoon to go sightseeing and shopping, for as we know, all Westerners love to shop. I was excited beyond all measure to actually be in Jaipur because I’d always wanted to see the Palace of the Winds, but we flew past that in approximately twenty seconds flat because the guys wanted to shop. Not the women, but the men. Deepna and I watched in some amusement as the guys tried out manbags, kurtas, selected a rainbow’s worth of silk scarves and throws for assorted womenfolk, checked out more kurtas and then finally, it was time to go back for dinner.

So I didn’t get to see inside the Palace of the Winds but I did get to see inside a tiny shop while its owner showed us silks and yet more silks and hand-embroidered bedspreads, and all the while, at the rear of the shop, an elderly man perched across bales of kurtas and tried to sleep through all the bartering going on up front. I was so overwhelmed by the experience of being in India for the first time that I was tempted to join him.

There is a beauty overload everywhere you turn. There’s also unbelievable squalor, sprawling mountain ranges of trash surrounding the outskirts of the big urban conurbations and a rush hour when the air turns so thick with hydrocarbons you could almost chew it. India is wonderful and awful at the same time. I travelled hoping to have my horizons expanded and my mind blown and, yes, both of those things surely happened. The contrasts between old and new, rich and poor are enough to render one breathless, spinning like an uncertain compass needle caught between opposing poles of awe and horror.

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We travelled from Jaipur to Swati Madhpur to visit a school and spend two nights in a very upmarket glamping establishment where we had our own white tents complete with little en-suite bathrooms and the sound of the wilderness of a tiger reserve right outside our canvas doors. To my dismay, all that stood between me and a Tiger Coming To Tea ( What’s for tea? Guess what? You’re it!) were a few strips of velcro.

Velcro? To ward off a marauding tiger? Not to mention the crocodiles we’d been peering at through binoculars? I have no idea how I managed to sleep on our first night,  but I did. And woke to birdsong. Birdsong as part of an astonishing call and answer sequence ; first a bird sang, then Jose in the next door tent answered on a viola. Bird; Jose: bird: Jose – what a perfect way to begin a day. I lay awake, entranced.

We took a train back to Delhi the following  day and disembarked at a station with the longest platform I’ve ever seen. Our luggage was immediately whisked away atop the heads of two porters with unfeasibly powerful neck muscles ( three heavy suitcases, piled one on top of the other? HOW?) and the only way to navigate our way through  the crush of thousands of people on the seemingly endless platform was to follow the undulating pile of suitcases weaving their way through the crowds up ahead.

Streets in Old Delhi were so narrow you could hardly make your way through the throngs of people, and we found ourselves pressed back against walls and doorways to allow passage of motorbikes with sometimes as many as four passengers riding pillion. I stood on something soft as I tried to get out of the way of one of these overloaded vehicles and looked down to discover I’d stepped on a dead rat. At least, I hope it was dead…

In the Spice District, a red fog of chilli powder engulfed us as we made our way past sacks of cardamon pods, cumin, coriander, turmeric and fenugreek. And those were only the ones I knew ; there were many other open sacks, full of mystery ingredients,  but light was leaching out of the sky and it was time to return for dinner.

The book festival sessions were hilarious and emotionally exhausting in equal measure. I was there to talk about picture books, but also to talk about my book about a personal journey through depressive illness ( Night Shift). I was nervous about mangling cultural mores or stepping on shibboleths or causing any upset by talking about depressive illness or any MH issues. I needn’t have worried. The generous and open-hearted audiences were only too happy to talk and ask questions and share their stories and finally, on the final session of the last day of the festivals, as a helper at the back of the tent was making the ‘last question’ signal, and I was happily anticipating a lie-down in a cool hotel bedroom, a young girl put her hand up and asked –

‘What advice should I give to a friend who is thinking about killing herself?’

Suddenly, I was walking on eggshells. My voice wobbled, my eyes filled up and I said something along the lines of – ‘Tell her she has no idea of what lies ahead of her. None of us can see the future. To cut it off, to make that awful irrevocable decision to end her life means she will never experience all the joys and heartbreaks and bliss and whole range of human experience that she is standing on the threshold of. I imagine she is having a terrible time right now, but this will not last for ever. Nothing lasts for ever. Things change, she will change with them. Her future self is begging her to reconsider. All of life lies before her. All of it.’

Thankfully, what you can’t hear or see behind these words is the halting, wobbling, nose-blowing wreck that was delivering them. This was not what I was expecting, but now, in retrospect, what I’ve taken from the experience is that this, this terrifying moment at the end of a book festival was why I went to India. Regardless of the outcome, the best we can do is to reach out and be kind to each other. To have compassion for all others and ourselves.

India was so massive, so full of people that I felt utterly insignificant. A tiny human ant among billions of others. Blessed by the fortunate circumstances of my birth in Scotland, blessed by my education, my friends and family, all of these contributing to the fact that I am warm, have a roof over my head and food in the cupboards. India made me appreciate that this gift of a life is mine by the merest fluke of fortune.

Lucky me.

 

 

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Happy-making

So. Today was another day of waiting for progress on the book front and rather than waste time trying to write something else when I already have several irons in the fire or hanging in the wind or whatever metaphor you might prefer to describe projects stalled in the ‘your call is valuable to us but all our operators are busy so please hold…’ phase, I decided to do things to make myself happy.

Things like baking bread.

This made me happy on several levels. One: thrift. There were four eggs left over from before Christmas, so I cracked them and sniffed cautiously and then turned  them into what I think is called a ‘reinforced dough’ with the addition of honey, salt, yeast and flour. The dough rose like a rocket, but that may have been because I sat it in a very warm place.

Two: simple alchemy. Making bread makes me feel like a goddess of the kitchen. Nothing like Nigella, more of a minor magician, adding a pinch of this and a bit of that and stirring it all in my crucible. The way dough rises is like life itself. Forcing its way up, even in the oven as it is transmuted into bread.

Three: making grown-up mud pies. There’s nothing quite like footering around with bits of dough to take me back to playing with my bestie Isabella when we were seven. Roaming wild in the dust and sand behind Tante Fiona’s house in Majorca, we used to make pretend food, smoke Uncle Morty’s cigarettes ( and throw up in the bushes – eughhh, why were we so keen to grow up?) and generally play at being grown-up ladies. I wonder where Isabella is now? Anyhoo, I digress. Mud pies rock, especially when you’re middle-aged and much in need of some proper playtime.

Four: the smell. Bread, just out of the oven has to be one of the best smells ever. It greets you as you come in the door, it warms the kitchen and it makes me want to eat and eat and eat…

Alas. My appetite in this wintry season is all-consuming. And double alas, I sprained my ankle a few weeks before Christmas and didn’t realise that I’d done such a thing until I went running  and wondered why my ankle swelled up like a dodgy doughnut. And despite all my careful exercises and taking it easy and not over-using it and blah de boring blah, I’m still unable to even do my basic 10,000 steps without it blowing up again and letting me know that tomorrow belongs to it.

Consequently, I’m a larger version of myself than I’d like to be. Which is so very much a first world problem that you may well wonder why I’m banging on about it BUT, without physical activity, my mental health takes something of a nosedive. I rely on running to keep me reasonably level. Without it, I’m flailing around trying to find straws to clutch to keep me afloat. And if you throw a lack of action on the employment front into the mix, you have a recipe for disaster.

Hence baking bread. And making new things for supper just about every night. Last night I made gnudi (little ricotta dumplings with a sage and tomato and basil sauce thing) from a recipe in the weekend papers. I’m looking at you, Señor Ottolenghi. To my dismay, they began to disintegrate in the simmering water just like a poached egg does round its margins. I fished them out, but they were a dozen damp little disasters rather than twelve perky little pillows. I did my usual post-mortem on them as I hoovered them down; ricotta too wet, celeriac too tasteless, basil and sage fighting it out for alpha flavour ( the basil, being an Italian thug, won) but oh, how disappointed was I? Tonight, it’s back to the safe haven of the Student Vegetarian Cookbook’s pumpkin goulash.

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Ochhhhhh. In a week’s time, I’ll pluck up courage and try Señor Slater’s version of gnudi, and see how they are.

This weekend it’ll be the annual marmalade-fest when the house fills up with the smell of simmering Sevilles and I fill the cupboard with jars of what I hope will be crystal clear jars of orange sunshine. Laying down supplies for the year ahead. A good way to spend time when I’m on hold.

Waiting and waiting and waiting for the go-ahead for a book means also waiting to earn money. Eating very, very economically. Trying not to breathe too deeply less something else falls off and requires some form of therapy to put it back together again. Gnudi are cheap. So is home-made marmalade and my heavens, pumpkin goulash is amazingly inexpensive. Especially if it’s made with half a pumpkin found lurking at the back of the fridge. So nothing gets wasted. Not even four eggs, one month past their sell-by date. Ew.

Shhhhhhhhh. Don’t tell. A well-raised loaf keeps its secrets.

Oh, Baby

IMG_4334World, meet Rebecca Eilidh, born yesterday. Approximately seven hours old here, and determinedly sleeping, less she wakes up and discovers she’s not inside the safe warmth of her mummy. So small and so perfect.

Her daddy suggested that she’s concentrating on her next bit of magic after setting the Trump Tower alight. I must have missed that bit of news because all I could think of yesterday was the safety of Rebecca’s mummy and the safe arrival of ( at that point) Little No-Name. Not a lot of anything done at GlioriSchloss yesterday, apart from waiting for the phone to ring.

So very glad all went well. Another small miracle quietly performed by the NHS.  It’s amazing when you think of it ; the maternity wing is a bit like a spaceport from a science fiction story. Whole persons ( albeit the bonsai version) materialise inside its walls from thin air. Two people ( I’m being boringly normal here – insert whatever number you want)  walk in and three ( as above) leave.

Where will the world be when Rebecca holds her first grand-daughter in her arms? Let’s all hope that we’ll collectively have grown some brains and made it a safe place to raise little humans. But for now, shhhhhh. We’ll tiptoe backwards out of the ward and leave mummy and baby sleeping, warm and safe on a winter’s night in 2018.

Travelling hopefully

IMG_4039In truth, I travelled fearfully, not being even remotely adventurous. Back last summer when I was asked by my lovely editor at Hot Key Books if I’d like to attend a book festival in India, I jumped at the chance. Come November, two weeks before departure, I was a migraine-ridden wreck, unable to sleep, catastrophising every possible thing that could go wrong and gazing at my open, unpacked suitcase as if it was a blue set of jaws threatening to swallow me whole.

My  past avoidance of air travel meant that arriving at Terminal One in London felt like stepping into some ghastly version of the future with added shopping opportunities. So many people. So much money. So many destinations. So many elevators. And I was about to climb aboard a tin tube and be hurled thousands of miles away from Da Bonnie into an unknown land. Where untold bacteria lurked if all the tourist manuals and WHO warnings were to be believed. And due to a worldwide shortage of some vital vaccine ( Hep. A) I was under-prepared. There was a large hole in my First World armour. A friend counselled me to keep my lips firmly sealed in the shower. Another said brush your teeth in bottled water. Yet another mentioned the possibility that I might want to pack my own syringes and needles in case of dreadful accidents befalling me where, presumably, I’d rise off my theatre bed and demand that the surgeon used my pre-packed supplies.

WHAAAAAAAAT?

On arrival, the smog in Delhi was everything promised by the various sources I’d read before leaving. It was toxic, but also ethereally beautiful in its own end-of-all-things kind of way. This is how the world ends, not with a bang but bronchitis. The traffic in Delhi, as promised, was sclerotic. There were wild pigs rooting in the gutters on broad leafy thoroughfares. There were people sleeping on the dirt barrier between the north and south travelling lanes of motorway traffic. Cooking their breakfast in the middle of speeding cars and smog and ever-present danger. Tiny children with liquid eyes tapped at the window of my taxi and mimed putting food into their mouths. Camels pulled carts and tuk-tuks honked their horns, swerved in front of us and belched fumes. Every lorry, no matter how decrepit, was hand-decorated with flowers and symbols and on the rear, the notice to ‘sound horn’ and ‘flash at night’.

Four of us bound for the book festival, plus a guide and a driver travelled in a people-carrier from Delhi to Jaipur. A long, interminable drive which should have taken about four hours but ended up taking nine. (To which, add my seven hour sleepless flight the previous night). We stopped in traffic, we stopped to worship at a temple, we stopped for lunch at a fast food roadside place where I drank two sips of possibly the nastiest drink that has ever crossed my lips bar none. And I have drunk rabarbero*, so I know whereof I speak. This particular Rajahstani horror was a lime soda, but it tasted of pure sulphur, like something excreted by Satan then chilled for future consumption. One of us got food poisoning that day, but remarkably, it wasn’t me. Perhaps swilling sulphur isn’t such a bad thing?

*Rhubarb aperitivo beloved of old Italian men in the bar down the road from my Nonna’s. Has a catastrophic effect on a younger person’s colon. Obviously designed for self-irrigation. Or perhaps it was just me?