Why I like a good surprise

Our columnist on spending a perfect birthday with the best of gifts, and cooking fish

Serve the baked fish with grated carrot and beetroot. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Serve the baked fish with grated carrot and beetroot. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

As my 51st birthday rolled in last week, my ambivalence about the birthday as an institution grew. My feeling is, it really is just another day. I don’t feel any older, I don’t feel any younger. I never have. Everyone made a great deal of my 50th, and I am grateful, but the only thing that has interested me about the day of my birth was that it was actually a dark, stormy night in an exotically named—and now dying—town called Kolar Gold Fields.

After half a century of being around, there isn’t much I want. Of course, it isn’t ideal that I am writing this column on a Sunday evening, working when no one else is, but that’s because I intend to not do much on Monday morning—apart from taking in that movie. You see, I am the master of my life. When people talk of Bengaluru’s maddening traffic, I don’t know what they mean. My office is my dining table, and my daily life is restricted to a 2km radius around home, perhaps 4km on a weekend—and that because my wife menacingly recommends that new movie. But, wait, the new multiplex is a 10-minute motorcycle ride away, so the menace is history. My parents are a 4-minute walk away, Bengaluru’s airport taxi service is so good that no one needs to be picked up, and my six-year-old’s bus stop, fortuitously, is our front gate. I satisfy my wanderlust when I drift to Mumbai once a month and elsewhere on occasion to report and write. My home is stuffed with books and music and love, all the things I have ever desired.

So, what do I tell my in-laws, parents and wife when they ask the dreaded question: What do you want? First, it doesn’t really matter; I don’t really want a present, but since you’re family, shouldn’t you know? Second, I like surprises, so if you really feel compelled to give me a present, surprise me. This may not be easy, but that’s not my problem.

My loved ones mistake the soundness of my logic for intransigence. More than two months before the day, they ask: “What do you want for your birthday?” My response is to glare, mutter and walk away. They know now there will be no cooperation, but they ask anyway. Thankfully, there’s my normally irascible wife, who, as August drifts in, becomes unusually cooperative with the efforts to surprise me.

And so it was that when the day came, they actually surprised me.

It began at home. I walked in from a rare appointment—no, not more than 4km away—and there in my living room was a rocking recliner, something I had always wanted. It had been vetoed so often by the wife over the years—too ugly, was her logic—that I had given up. I jumped in, pulled out the foot rest, rocked myself back and forth, and settled in with my new book, itself a birthday surprise. I saw a tweet about The Poisoned Well: Empire And Its Legacy In The Middle East—an incisive account of how today’s mess came to be—and retweeted it saying, “If anyone wants to surprise me on my birthday...” I did not notice that the book’s publisher was my friend, Michael Dwyer, who quickly sent me an email, saying the book would be couriered from London. The book and the recliner—what more could I want.

I was told there was a little party planned, just family, as I like it. Since everyone knows I do not object to cooking on my birthday, I was told to contribute, so I did (see recipe below), a fuss-free entrée that would not interfere with the party. When the evening came along, my mother had surpassed herself by not just organizing the party but getting me six bottles of wine. My in-laws—doubtless aided by a mole at home—handed me a set of headphones to compensate for my broken pair. My daughter had drawn me a special card, which dispensed with the paternal honorific and simply said, “Happy Birthday Samar.” There was sushi, biryani, fish, drink, laughter and happiness. Yes sir, 51 is done, and I really did get surprised.

Black pomfret baked in Samar’s birthday masala

Serves 5-6


1 and half kg whole black pomfret, with four slashes on each side

2 tsp piri piri powder

4 tsp Samar’s birthday masala

3-4 tbsp red wine

Salt, to taste

Side salad

Grate two carrots and one beetroot. Toss in one teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and fresh, chopped parsley (if you have it).

Samar’s birthday masala

6 byadgi chillies (or any other)

Half-inch piece cinnamon

2 cloves

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 cardamom

Half tsp caraway seeds


Roast the whole spices in an iron pan until they start to crackle and pop. Cool a bit and grind to a powder.

Marinate the whole fish in the fresh masala, salt, piri piri powder and wine, taking care to rub the marinade into slashes and cavities. Wrap carefully in foil and put away in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Preheat the oven and bake the fish for 1 hour at 180 degrees Celsius. After an hour, open to check if cooked through. Drain the liquid and grill uncovered for 20 minutes (more if needed), using the liquid as marinade.

Serve hot with grated carrot and beetroot salad.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @samar11.

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