The story of a plate of pasta that was thirty five years in the making

Hippie and the techni-coloured plate of pasta

The hippie life

"How cute is the ceramic hippo," said Sam on DM on Instagram and then added, "I love the ceramics you keep getting...especially the pasta plate."

"There's a story to the pasta plate," I was about to type back and then realised that my answer involved more characters than what an Insta DM allowed. Which is why I headed to my Mac, once lunch was over to write this story. I eventually finished it at night, with a nap, an evening snack, a walk and dinner, sandwiched in between.

Sam was the client on one of the most satisfying projects that I worked on last year.  One day, when we were chatting after a presentation, Sam told me that she had begun to take pottery lessons. She said that it helped her deal with the stress of her high pressure job and allowed her creativity to unfold too. She told about how she would meticulously put her creations together in their apartment and then took it to her teacher's kiln to bake. Her passion for pottery was palpable.

Given my butterfingers, pottery is not something that I would dream of attempting but I thought that I could write her a story at least as a thank you note for the lovely project that she had made me a part of.

So here goes. The story of the pasta plate but let's take the hippo first. Or Hippie as we call him.

K, my wife, had brought it back from one of her international work trip. Her art partner had picked it up from a shop and bought it for us. It is a half finished sculpture they were told.

While she is not sure where it is from, Hippie seems quite at home at our place now.

The Instagram story that started off this story

Now the pasta plate

This story goes back to Calcutta in 1983. My father had just passed on and suddenly my world changed. My brother, mother and I moved in with my maternal grandparents for a year, till we moved into an apartment of our own. My grandparents would look after my brother (who was just two years old then) and me, even after we moved out, when my mother went to work everyday. She used to teach at a college in far off Howrah then.

I was shifted to a new school. From the Calcutta International School (CIS) to the Assembly of God Church, Tollygunge (AGCS, Tolly). The then principal of the school, Mrs Kapper, was kind enough to listen to the entreaties of my mother and my chhotomashi (aunt) and admit me mid-session. So there I was. All of 9 years old. Trying to find my feet in a completely new world.

The Calcutta International School, which was then located behind Nizam Palace and is now located at the Bypass, was meant for children of expats and for Indian kids who were born abroad who had moved into India. Children who were used to a slightly different culture an academic philosophy than what was prevalent in Calcutta then.

We did not have to wear uniforms at CIS. There were no exams till the 8th standard back then. They would prepare you for the O levels and not the local Indian boards there. The focus was on what one could call 'creative learning.' The understanding was perhaps that most of the children in that school would move out of India someday.

Life had other plans for me though. While I did move out of Kolkata eventually, it was to Bombay at the other end of the country and not outside of it.

Life in the AGCS was very different from that at CIS. It was (and still is) an ICSE medium school. We had to wear uniforms here.

Exams entered my life for the first time! Class tests. Mid-terms. Finals. There was home-work. Morning assembly and prayers too as it was a school set up by missionaries. Religion was not a part of the CIS milieu. It was fairly agnostic in comparison but had framed photographs of the Queen all over as it used to be called the 'British International School' till recently.

I had to learn Bengali (finally) in AG and Hindi too, as the latter was the third language my mother chose for me, and I would often get my alphabets mixed.

I made new friends at AG of course. I had to explain why my head was shaven when I was yet to come to terms with the finality of my father's death myself, but that awkwardness apart, I soon realised that my new friends were a nice bunch to grow up with.

The class at AG consisted of more than 40 students if I remember right. Or was it 60? At CIS I was never in a class which had more than 10! At AG, my classmates were largely from local Bengali families and this was my first exposure to my own culture and that was a fascinating experience.

That's the thing about being a child. You keep learning, adapting and adopting, no matter what. Your mind is indeed like clay, ready to be moulded. The potter makes all the difference.

When I think back to that time, I know that both my short stint at the CIS, and then the longer one at AGCS, played a significant role in making me the person I am today and I am so grateful for that. I was indeed fortunate to have the support system of my mother, her family and my teachers, who got together to cocoon my brother and me till we were ready to fly.

The little girl with the big water-bottle

This little elephant that K brought from Sri Lanka along with the
mat has no connection with the story. Except perhaps the fact that
I was once called a 'baby elephant' by a teacher in school

One similarity between AGCS and CIS was that they were both co-ed schools. One of the new friends that I made at AGCS was a girl named Poli. Her father had a transferrable job. Which is why Poli's second language was Hindi and not Bengali. We possibly got along well as the itinerant nature of the rather short lives we had led till then was a common bond between us.

When I asked my mother recently whether she remembered Poli, she said, "yes, she was the girl with a big water bottle."

I will take her word for that because I have no memory of it.

Poli moved out of the school and Calcutta a year later as her father was transferred. We lost touch after that. This was an age well before email after all and attention spans are short when you are just ten.

We connected around fifteen years later. Not in person but on Orkut or Facebook. I am not sure which. Poli was in the US by then. Me in Mumbai.

I had just begun blogging on food and she too would share stories of the lovely food that her husband cooked. Then they had twins who were born prematurely. For a while Poli, the tense mother of the two fledgling lives, would blog about their stories to give hope to other parents of premature children. Or, perhaps to herself.

I am happy to say that the two boys have grown up to be healthy, bright and perpetually smiling young boys.

Poli has often K and me to visit them in the US but I have not been able to take up on her kind offer yet. Poli and I are yet to meet in person again. My mother did though, when Poli visited her in Kolkata with her two sons during a visit to her parents.

K has met Poli too and that's where the pasta plate comes back into the picture.

When one story led to another

K went to the Caribbean on a work trip earlier this year. She was flying United Airlines. The flight was delayed from Mumbai and she missed the connector at NJ. The airline put her in what was quite a morbid hotel in a morbid part of the city as the airport closes down at night. It was midnight when I got the news from K and she was quite shaken up by the experience. The hotel seemed desolate and without even a cafeteria and she had to spend a full day and night to spent there. She felt understandably lost.

I was wondering how I could help and suddenly remembered Poli lived close by. By a stroke of luck, I got Poli's number from my whatsapp folder and called her and explained what happened.

"Don't worry," said Poli from across the seven seas. "I know exactly what she is feeling and will take care of her. You sleep."

Sleep I did and then I was woken up mid-sleep a few hours later by the sound of the phone.

Turned out that Poli, her husband and her two boys, had driven all the way down to the hotel to meet K. Poli had taken warm clothes (it was still winter there) and a hot Starbucks cappuccino (the only thing K told her she wanted when Poli called her) and they bundled her and took her out for dinner to a local Mexican place which was still open. They offered their house for K to sleep in but given that the flight was a morning one, K said that the hotel would work out better.

Poli decided to Facetime me from the car when they were on their way to drop K in the hotel. It was possibly 4 in the morning or so in India and there was K, sitting snug as a bug in the car, or rather like Goldilocks and mama, papa and the two baby bears after they become friends. Or would 'like a friend of Peppa's with her family' be a more contemporary analogy?

"She is fine," Poli told me. "Now go back to sleep."

K still can't stop praising them for their concern and hospitality.

Friendships that don't need a 'fragile' sticker

When K came home and unboxed the plates

When K returned a few days later, she unwrapped two pasta plates that Poli had sent for us. I broke into a big smile on seeing them. Let me tell you why.

Poli was supposed to come to Mumbai a few years back with her kids and stay with us. While planning the trip, she asked me if there was something that she could bring me.

I had just begun cooking pasta back then. A dish I was not too fond of but which K loved. As I began cooking it for her, I fell in love with pastas myself.

I missed having the sort of pasta plates that you have at places such as Salt Water Cafe. The ones with a wide rim and a deep hollow. I asked Poli if she could bring me one.

She bought two for us. Unfortunately, the trip did not work out and we did not get to meet.

Poli had apparently kept the plates carefully at home. When she heard that K was in town, she packed them properly and gave it to K despite the short notice. She hoped that the plates would reach their home home in one piece. And so they did.

K carried them from NJ to the Caribbean and back to NJ while on transit and, then without much adventure this time, to Mumbai and then to our home.

And that, Sam, is the story of the pasta plates. Not quite fine dining chic, but definitely a plate that a chubby nine year old would have loved had he got it back in the day. Just as he does now.

Hopefully I will finally meet Poli one day and make her and the boys a pasta too.

More stories? How about a recipe then?

Funnily enough, Poli's plate and Sue's pasta reached me at the same time and this pic is from when
I first used the gifts that I received. Not the one I made today, but similar

Well the spaghetti that I used while making lunch today was brought and gifted to us by our friends Sue and Nathan from Waitrose in London. It was made in Naples. Sue and Nathan are friends that I made through the blog years back and who are family friends now. I also used the sweet Aleppo peppers that they brought me.

The table-mats re part of the treasure trove of dinnerware (plates, mats, the sleeping elephant) that K got me from a shop called Paradise Road in Colombo.

Now, let me give you the recipe of the spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce that I made today.

Ingredients (for 1): 1 table spoon of olive oil & 1 of extra virgin olive oil or 2 of both, 1  clove of garlic, 100 g slices button mushrooms, 2 carrots, 1 bell pepper, 1 tablespoon walnuts, 2,3 medium sized tomatoes, salt, oregano, black pepper, red pepper, 6,7 leaves of fresh basil, 1 tablespoon grated parmesan, 50 g pasta (spaghetti ideally)

  1. Heat a table spoon of olive oil on a flat pan on a low flame
  2. Add 1 roughly chopped clove of garlic
  3. Add 100 g slices button mushrooms and 2 diagonally and thickly sliced carrots
  4. After this cooks, add 1 sliced bell pepper (1/2 a green one and 1/2 a red one in this case) and crushed walnuts
  5. Then the juice of 2 medium sized tomatoes (blended in a mixer grinder). You can meats if you want to. We did so lavishly when we were younger.
  6. Add seasoning: salt, oregano, black pepper, red pepper
  7. Bring the sauce to a boil and then let cover the pan let the sauce slow cook after 10 to 15 minutes and a few sprigs of fresh basil if you can
  8. At the end, add pre-boiled pasta (50 g) and a bit of the water it was boiled in and a bit of salt at the end on the pasta.
  9. Add some grated Parmesan (it's so expensive here that I only add it at the finish), some basil leaves and a bit of extra virgin olive oil. Turn off the hob. That's it! 
Unlike in restaurants, you need not add any sugar to this tomato sauce. If you are lucky as I was today, you might even have some a burst of rain to give you company.

Sue's spaghetti. Poli's pasta plate. Lunch at home on a rainy Mumbai afternoon
Aren't I the lucky one?

Appendix: Since I had made a reference to the project earlier, I thought I should share once again share the video that came out of it. It is a story that is very dear to me.


Keka said…
Such a lovely well-written post!! I know of Poli from my erstwhile manager (and another really amazing person) Priya. We spoke a couple of times on the phone and then a bit here and there on FB. So nice to read of her and the pasta plates and a lovely story of warmth and happiness!