Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A book in the hand

Whole-wheat Banana Cake (Photos by Amruta Nargundkar)

Aai, Dada-my brother and I are lying on our own beds reading our books. In that large open family home of ours we aren’t disconnected by individual bedrooms. Some of the family’s countless cats are thrown in for the effect – well, I stand corrected, they choose to place themselves where they please – on the bed, in the crook of our arms, on the pillow...

We are each reading our own stuff (at times after a stiff battle for a much coveted freshly borrowed book) but keenly attuned to what the other is reading, whether it is James Hadley Chase, Spike Milligan or Pu. La. Deshpande. Suddenly one of us hoots out their mirth and the others tear themselves from their books to enquire with genuine interest. 

The one who hails our attention reads the amusing bits aloud, we all laugh and chuckle together and then quiet descends as we resume our own book journeys in companionable silence.

Sometime during the night, mother removes the slackened books from our chests and switches the lights off. Or if it is a daytime reading spree, someone tosses the idea of making tea and fixing a snack and we bandy it around each convincing the other how they are best suited to fix the readers a cuppa  - until Aai caves in to make some tea for all of us.

Can we have something to eat, too? We push our luck…. we want cake…

We were able to enjoy such fun times and have these fond memories only because Aai herself was a voracious reader. In fact, this love of reading is the inheritance from a maternal grandmother and her sisters- in- law (great – aunts of mine) - who were iconoclastic, trendsetting female bibliophiles from nearly a century ago.

These women were compulsive readers of historical and social novels by the likes of V.V. Hadap, Nath Madhav and Hari Narayan Apte, inculcating enlightened ideas of women’s education, widow remarriages, condemnation of child marriages and other social issues of their times. 

The raft of what they read was impressive, ranging from Marathi peers of the English Romantic poets- Keshavsoot, Bal Kavi and their ilk to feminist writers Girija Bai Kelkar and Rama Bai Ranade. Biographies and works of Agarkar, Tilak and Savarkar and newspapers such as Kesari, the political literature around the new awakening during those times also made a deep impact on these women who hadn’t had much formal schooling.

Their interests were not just academic or artistic, for they acquired practical skills and absorbed knowledge in areas such as Ayurveda, public health, hygiene and midwifery through self-help books and shared their wisdom with other less fortunate women in their community.

Four of these women across two generations studied in Dhondo Keshav Karve’s  Hinganey Stree Shikshan Sanstha near Pune. Mai my grandmother had completed a few years of college at the Karves’ university.  She read the likes of Shakespeare, Marie Corelli, Dickens, Hardy to name only a few and would often tell her kids and later us grandkids, stories from her readings in the style of Lamb’s Shakespeare or at times gave us Bowdlerized renditions of these great works.

Periodicals like the Illustrated Weekly Of India, Women and Home and Reader’s Digest were delivered home, when my freedom fighter grandparents had patches of peacetime stability between dodging the Razakars under a shoot-at-sight order in the erstwhile Nizam State.

Aai is very proud of the fact that her social reformer father never bought his five daughters jewelry for their dowry – instead he would buy books, music records and plenty of goodies while returning home from his work related tours. Even to this day Mother’s face lights up when she recalls the shortbread and Shrewsbury cookies, the Huntely and Palmer biscuits in pretty tins and pound cakes that enhanced the siblings’ joy at their father’s homecoming.

A touching little childhood memory Mother ruefully laughs at is of writing a letter to her father who was in jail as a political prisoner, to bring home a lot of books and toys and cakes!

As I reminisce about what these mighty women two generations behind me read and relished, I am acutely aware that there was another and perhaps more enlightened generation of their mothers and mothers-in-law behind them supporting their literary efforts.

No mean feat this, in an era where little girls were punitively assigned grueling household tasks if their demanding mothers and mothers-in-law feared these kids would get corpulent when left at leisure. This was truer of child widows, whose destiny and dreams were shorn along with their locks and sealed in the constricted red or white wrap-around. 

Such strict matrons would add grit to rice and set the young girls to pick sack-loads of the grain to keep them out of mischief. When all else was done, some even had to draw heavy pots of water from deep wells, only to spill and waste the water along with their energy, time and any zest to improve their lot.

The progressive women in my family supported their daughters' literary interests, bravely facing disparagement from nosy neighbouring women folk criticising the young girls and their mothers for “lolling in bed with a book on their chests” and “drinking umpteen cups of tea with milk” – so inappropriate and unacceptable in those days.

Lucky us, I think – for not only did we get to loll in bed with books on our chests, but also got indulged in cups of tea with milk – and some wholewheat banana cake, from a recipe very close to Aai’s heart.

A gift I cherish, as does that likeminded lady with a child-like pure-hearted love for books exhorting the world (in a little-girl voice) to give children that gift of reading a book. 

Yes, Rohini Nilkeni, your words so resonate with me! 

This is my entry to the "The Idea Caravan" contest on Indiblogger.

Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012.

Whole-wheat Banana Cake


2 cups fine whole-wheat flour (atta)
2 large or 3 medium sized ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
1tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¾ tsp salt
¾ cup oil
1 ½ cups sugar/ 1cup sweetener
2 eggs
¾ cup buttermilk + 1 tsp baking soda


Preheat the oven to 180 C. Grease and flour a 9”X5” loaf tin and set aside.

Sift the flour, baking powder, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt together in a bowl.
Combine the buttermilk and the baking soda.  Mix and set aside.

Beat together the sugar/sweetener and oil until light.  Add the eggs and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.  Add in the mashed bananas and mix well.
Add half the flour mixture. Then add half the buttermilk mixture and stir well.  Then add the rest of the milk mixture and stir until the milk is fully incorporated into the batter.  Add the rest of the flour mixture and stir well.

Once the flour is mixed into the batter completely, pour it all into the prepared loaf tin.  Spread out evenly.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 40 - 45 minutes. If your oven has uneven heat areas, turn the pan once half way through. Test with a skewer or if the cake springs back to touch, then it is done.

Cool for about 10 -15 minutes before slicing.

You can have the cake and eat it too!


  1. What a delightful post! It seems like a perfect journey to the destination being the recipe for the cake.
    I love reading and relish everything about it and the way you have summed up your idyllic "younger" days is amazing. I'm comparing with the present day situation with my son who feels the need for constant stimulation with different games and activities, though, thank god! Not the tv!
    On a seperate note, I miss the power cuts we had in India which got the whole family together with a united purpose to kill boredom!
    Excellent post!

    1. Hello Anonymous - thank you so much for your lovely note! I am wondering why I haven't replied! But I would love to know who you are - after three long years! :)

  2. Beautifully written post, Shruti

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Excellent story and the recipe too.


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