A hollow tree, Bruce Ridge Nature Reserve, Canberra

All natural

an openly gashed 
hollowness, as within you,
lives in nature too


Photo: A hollow tree, Bruce Ridge Nature Reserve, Canberra
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Oven and I

Like most teenagers who didn’t have many friends to hang out with after work, I developed an interest in cooking as a way to entertain myself. Almost every recipe I saw (that I liked) involved tools I didn’t have access to, like a grill, a waffle maker, stand mixers, oven—you get the idea.

Most Asian homes don’t have those appliances—and more importantly, they have no use for them in their kitchens. Generations of Indians lived full, healthy, and happy lives eating wholesome meals without even setting eyes on a microwave or an oven. Cooking heat came from firewood stoves and kerosene or oil lamp burners, both almost extinct now. Modern homes have induction or gas stoves. As a child I sat beside my mother watching her blow through a kerosene stove awaiting the water to boil.

On a side note, she also had a vintage oven in which she baked buns—buttered with a sesame-strewn crust—for us each week, but it was still a phenomenon in a society far more accustomed to traditional cooking methods.

By the time I was old enough to understand its functionality, my mother’s oven had fallen prey to rust and disuse. That’s why the oven fascinated me so. When I saw a video of bread rising behind the glass, as a flower to the sun, my heart swelled in longing. Buying an oven went right on top my list.

But it was also an investment and my inner miser took long enough to weigh the benefits and the possibilities of me making optimum use of the purchase. After years of being on my need-to-buy list, my inner logic won, pushing the oven to the more idealistic nice-to-have-but-high-maintenance list. And so, despite spending almost four years wishing, I never bought an oven.

Then as planned my move to Australia, I realised an oven was a household staple in the first world. Of course, that’s why every recipe called for preheating at 400 degrees F or 200 degrees C. My joy knew no bounds. I couldn’t wait to get started, to bake my aches away, to watch bread that I kneaded rise to the occasion.

Except, it took me over two months to pluck the courage to open the oven.

It was the first thing I saw in the kitchen. Unmissable, wide and thick-skinned, with knobs and symbols, and a clock that showed the wrong time—the oven was too much to take.

The oven, an appliance I’d imagined to love and cherish, felt alien and condescending. For the love of bread I couldn’t figure out what the symbols meant. How hard was it to add explanatory text in there? And why was the fan so big, staring at me as I peeped in, as though from behind soot-studded bars?

It was scary. I forgot all about the wonderful recipes I’d planned—choosing instead to cradle the comfort of the pot. Who needs roasted pumpkins when you could boil them instead? After all, the result was the same—softness, edibility.

And so it was a whole two months before my housemate, trying hard not to snigger at my ancient reluctance to modern equipment, explained the symbols and nudged me to live a little.

And since then I’ve been roasting chickpeas, baking crackers from intended cookie dough, making crispy onion flowers, and toasting oats with tahini and Vegemite (trust me, it’s good stuff if you like savoury stuff). I’ve been on an experimental rampage, throwing everything in the oven, testing temperatures, resting my palms in the glass as winter raged outdoors, and appreciating the oven for its might.

Then one day, too confident to wear oven mitts, I used a cloth to pull out the tray, singeing a small part of skin on the tray above it. It wasn’t painful for I’d pulled my hand out instantly. But the scar lingers, as a visual reminder of my adventures with the oven, with the power of heat, a power beyond my control, a power that I took for granted—that we all often take for granted.

As I look at the scar now, weeks later, I think of my carelessness, but also my growth as an individual. In just a few months, I’d gone from not knowing what an oven is to being so comfortable that I shrug off a small burn without a flinch.

Not to underestimate the importance of kitchen safety, but I can’t help but amuse myself of how ingrained the oven’s become in my life. It’s a reflection of a bigger picture—a sign of my adapting to a new society, and melding in without much friction.

We seldom realise it in our everyday rush, but when you’ve moved to a new place, things that once overwhelmed you soon become part of you. I paused to realise: that’s how oven and I are now.

Greener on the other side

“So tell me, why should someone visit India?”

“Er—”

When my friend asked me what’s good about India, I couldn’t come up with anything.

The only reason anyone from the first world or a western country should visit India is to understand how much privilege they have over the people of developing countries.

It’s eye-opening. Even the smallest things like a proper footpath are non-existent. Things you’d take for granted, like safe neighbourhoods, pedestrian-accommodating road rules, recycling systems, garbage trucks are all still tucked away under a vague five-year economic plan that may never see the light.

But I know all that only because I’ve lived there. I’ve wallowed in that toxicity for so long that I’ve come to hate everything about it, no longer recognising, or even acknowledging, the good things.

I wanted to leave–for a better lifestyle, a better society, and better mental health.

And I’m fortunate that I could. But—ain’t the grass always greener on the other side.

India is a beautiful country—to visit. It plays host to 780 languages, the second largest number in the world. Thousands of cultures practice millions of traditions every day. Aside from their historical practices, each group that speaks a language has many religious beliefs as well. And so, every language, throughout the years, has served as primary communication among different religions and castes (family groups). Not only does this magnify the number of classifications amongst Indians, but it also depicts the diversity that thrives in India.

For me, that’s a whole lot of unnecessary complexities that lead to political and religious wars. And that disgusts me.

However, this diversity is also why India (most of it, anyway) has a rich heritage and open-mindedness in welcoming foreigners. People love to show off—whether it’s their customs, tales they grew up with, dances passed down over generations, food that’s comforted pained souls for ages, they enjoy sharing with anyone curious enough to ask and invested enough to respect.

That’s priceless when you’re a traveller.

Even though every corner of the country, every urine-smelling alleyway, every open garbage dump, and every infected street dog nauseates the average person, that’s also where you’ll find charming old ladies selling fresh flowers for your hair. You’ll see short-tempered fruit and vegetable stall holders bickering with each other who’s got better produce. You’ll run into juice vendors who’ll pour you a glass so full that you have to take a sip first before carrying it away. When you chat with them, you’ll learn their struggles to make ends meet, to pay their children’s school fees, to wake up every morning with only three hours of sleep. And yet, as you pass these everyday people on the street, you’ll realise that despite all the harsh realities of their lives, they still try to smile, share, and celebrate spreading joy around them.

India is a “developing” country—been that way for decades. And it’s hard to say when, if at all, it’ll offer its people the comfort and luxuries that’ve become a norm in other countries. Regardless, Indians try hard every day to make their lives a little better than it was the day before. And that’s worth a visit.

Oh, and the Himalayas probably makes it worthwhile too.

Woman at work

It was a lonely little corner
she’d taken it up as her own
crouching low, perched on edge
on a tall-backed cushion chair
as if she’d forgotten for good
how good it was sitting back
intensely black her eyes
as a bird atop a peeling birch
darting from stitch to stitch
as though following a fish
unperturbed by them rustling
winter winds wailing without
cozy and carefree she snuggled
swiftly shifting her grip instead
keeping up steady progress
lips parting in occasional smile
chuckling at jokes only she saw
much like the readers around
cherishing the magic that unfurled
the old woman knitted in the library

Rider

He paused at the sidewalk
letting passers by pass
he’d play by the rules
wait for the signals
though no van was in sight
one foot on the ground
another fiddling the pedal
just a few seconds more
assuring himself he stood
the system took its time
before it gave the green
and off he went a sailing
though dedicated pathway
for those pedallers as he
he rode by crooked trees
old, bent, and dying to die
their barks stripped bare
their roots gone barren
recalling as he flew past
plush, browning blooms
from a month or two afore
vanished in a slice of time
not even shadows remained
yet unstopping on he went
seeking his ultimate destination
going through a mangled maze
waving at the greying florist
settled beside a fading future
smiling at her dimpled smile
what great love for life she had!
the town centre came by next
and he barely squeezed through
high-heeled boots, long leather jackets
classy wristwatches and poor diets
oof—coming to a screeching halt
catching his breath at another signal
so much was going on all around
buying and selling and exchanging
trading, wading, and sneaking about
puffing, blowing, messing it all up
for each their own way of living
and he rode on through his