Saturday, November 29, 2003

Of Cabbage Soup and Christmas Lights

After the sumptuous beans and rice lunch yesterday, A did not want a repeat for dinner. He asked me what I would be cooking. “Something vegetarian; Carrots, cabbages, potatoes…lets see”. Cabbages Please! With Lardon fumés!! And before I knew what was happening, A was back from the supermarché with 2 packs of smoked ham strips. I had first chanced upon a recipe for a quick onion (shallots really), noodle soup in a French cook book. Later on, another similar one with sausages. With a little variation, it soon became our favourite soup meal. First take a heavy pot, put the lardon fumes into it and stir till the fat melts (you don’t need any additional oil for this soup), then add onions and fry and then tomatoes and any vegetable of your choice – shredded cabbage, carrots, potatoes, turnips, beans etc. Add water, chicken stock (known as court bouillon) and cover. When the vegetables are half cooked, add in a handful of pasta / noodle of your choice. And hey presto!!

As usual, I couldn’t not stop myself after two large bowls full and forced down another bowl which left me feeling heavy to put it mildly. “Hansh Phansh” would describe it better.

As soon as I was able to, I pulled on my sweater, coat, and shoes and went out with A for a post-soup walk. A, who had gone out earlier, had seen the Christmas lights up and wanted me to see them.

In fact last night, the lights in Champs Elysees were officially inaugurated, this year by actress Carol Bouquet who did the honours. I thought I spied (on Tele) ex-PM Jospin grinning away, next to her.

Anyhow, our town decided to light up today. So, 1st we went straight down to ‘Hotel de Ville’ or the Town Hall an impressive old building with a large clock in front and a small bell on top. The windows were bordered with strands of green holly and golden lights entwined together. The foreyard had a christmas tree strung up with red ribbons and lights. All pillars were covered with what looked like showers of golden lights.

The Quay Victor Hugo (quai in French) adjacent to the Mairie (Mayor’s office, here the town hall) with the five bridges spanning the river La Marne, was all lit up. The old bridge which is closed to the public too was lit up. The next bridge which is also the marché bridge on account of the vendors plying their wares each Samedi, was done up beautifully. The lamp poles were lit as were the large potted plants suspended from the poles had long lengths of tiny lights suspended from it. The other day, on my way to somewhere, I had seen municipal workers fixing spiky white branches onto the bare trees on the roads along the river front. Turns out, the white spikes were tiny lights!!

We walked down on a big avenue away from the river front down to ‘Place Henri Quatre’. It’s a large paved square strewn with benches, bordered by flower beds and trees. But what a transformation! Each tree was strung with lights, cardboard boxes, gift-wrapped in bright colours – orange, yellow, red, blue and cardboard cut outs of elves perched on the braches. An enormous Christmas tree stood in a barrel, unlit. I don’t think the lighting is yet complete. Last year, the two weeping willows were lit up as well. Some of the inner streets are lit too…each one in a different way. The store fronts are changing their window dressing!! Soon each one will try and out do the others with sleds and reindeers and santas and holly and lights and cotton snow!!

Reminds me of Calcutta and the puja lights. Unfair to compare this with the magnificent puja light. I keep trying to describe it to A, who has never seen a puja in Calcutta, yet. Nevertheless, I caught myself several times, gaping happily in admiration up at the light festooned trees. This brought to my mind an incident from long ago.

It happened during one of our annual trips to Calcutta from Assam, where we used to then live. That year too, we put up with our mother’s elder sister (mashi to us). Her only child, a son, ‘dada’ to me and R, had an uncle ‘Kaka’ who took the three of us out one day. Kaka, a young bachelor then, took us all over Calcutta – to places of his interests and intriguing to us because of the novelty of his choices. Football grounds (East Bengal first followed by Mohemmadan Sporting), Eden Gardens, in between a heavy lunch at ‘Aminia’, where he ordered a ‘Special’ – the dish was called special. Mughlai Chicken curry with two eggs apiece. Neither R, nor I would eat our eggs and so dada and Kaka ended up eating 4 eggs each!

The day was far from over though!! Around sun-set (6ish I should think), the 4 of us boarded a bus (another novelty for R and I since we did not go around in buses in Assam) and went to Howrah Station to see the ‘lights’.

It does sound puzzling today, here and now. Howrah and Lights? A million people, cars, buses, lorries, animals, carts, rickshaws, smoke, exhaust fumes, heat and dust. But Lights??

But we did see the ‘Lights’ that day.

Lights twinkling in the huge red Victorian station building.
Lights on the massive cantilever Howrah Bridge.
Lights twinkling in the boats and streamers under the bridge in the murky waters of the Hooghly.
And from the bridge, 1000’s of twinkling lights in the city we had left behind!!

It was quite interesting to us then, at least interesting enough not to have questioned kaka’s choices of venues!!

We came home, clothes crumpled, faces grimy, very tired but CONTENT! Ma and mashi asked us where we had been (the answer to which they already knew, but wanted to hear it from us). They burst out laughing when we replied Howrah Station to see the Lights!

They laughed uncontrollably, their laughter growing progressively hysterical each time we asked them what was so funny about our answer?!

It took me a fair number of years to understand the meaning of something mashi had managed to spew out, incoherent as she was with laughter: Ga thekey esheychey era sob! Howrah station’er light dekhtey gechilo!!!

Glossary french words:
supermarché - supermarket
Lardon Fumés - smoked ham
Mairie - Mayor's office

Glossary bengali words
Hansh Phansh - Huffing and Puffing
Samedi - Saturday
Quai - Quay
Mashi - mother's sister
Dada - brother
kaka - dad's younger brother
Aminia - a famous eatery in Calcutta serving Mughlai cuisine
Ga thekey esheychey era sob! Howrah station’er light dekhtey gechilo!!!- Villagers all, went to see the lights of Howrah Station!!

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