1) That’s the sound you emit most these days
2) Advanced language is highly overrated
3) I just may be incapable of sophisticated communication at this point
This piece first appeared in the December 2014 issue of India Currents magazine. I’d love to hear your childhood food memories! Share? :)
Among my earliest childhood memories is a shot of thrill up my spine on hearing a certain raspy, faraway voice calling “Paaplet! Kolmi! Bombil-waleeeaaay!”
That was Moti, our family fisherwoman for three generations, hawking the just-caught contents of her woven basket to a lane of Parsis willing to pay top rupee for their palates. Much hubbub would follow, as someone, typically a domestic or child tall enough to reach the window, was sent to wave her down. “Yete!” she’d screech, with all the decorum of a hurricane ripping through an island, and begin her ascent to our top-floor home, green glass bangles and thumping gait announcing her presence long before she huffingly-pufflingly made it.
Moti smelled of scales and salt and the sea, odors I came to associate with happiness. In a Parsi child’s life, especially one stereotypically expected to manage her own kitchen in adulthood, an education in fish is vital. The lessons of laal pani versus safed pani, and using your finger to scoop under the gills to check for freshness are Fish Purchasing 101 tips. The nose is your savviest instrument, and one as undiscerning as mine is a serious liability. Then there is a banquet of bliss to choose from—all those varieties of fresh and saltwater fish, seasonal and available the whole year through—bangra (mackerel) and raawas (salmon), boi (mullet marine) and boomla (bombay duck), and the thrill of discovering bonus gharab (roe) in one of your chosen future meals.
It is a messy business, the selection of fish. Not for those who aren’t accustomed to ooze and blood and scales. Its parts callously lopped into diagonal chunks, its silver-grey body glistening enticingly, a pre-purchase fish is a thing of beauty. It is here that I realize the staggering power of social conditioning, for a joyous childhood ritual that entails a dead creature’s guts can only be that. Or perhaps it is a lesson in focusing on the end result: the perfect, well-seasoned accompaniment to a meal of dhandar. H.e.a.v.e.n.
A trusting rapport with your machhiwali is expected to be one of life’s most enduring relationships. And when she moves on to a better place, where crispy-fried boomlas (I’ve mentioned them three times already in 300 words, can you tell they’re a favorite?) are dished hot and fresh by harp-strumming cherubs, you know better than to mess with the line of succession—her daughter or niece will become your supplier. Our Lady of Piscine Perfection is now Moti’s niece Tanuja, who has discarded the colorful nauvaris of her Koli roots and the ginormous beaded nath of Moti’s era, but thankfully, none of the accent or the mannerisms that we almost expect of our fisherwomen.
It is a centuries-old communication, this unique and frequently amusing haggling between housecoat-clad Gujarati speakers and the shrill and shrewd sellers of fish. Odd words fly in Marathi, exclamations peak like stiff egg whites and many an eyebrow does a Prabhu Deva, with flung arms for company. Accusations of looting and starving little children are routinely hurled, as both parties bemoan a time when the catch was fresher, prices cheaper, and their respective communities were pretty much the only inhabitants of Bombay, apart from the Sahibs.
The last time I was in Bombay, I partook of this ritual gladly. From carrying out round thaals (plates) to pile the carefully-selected purchase on, to washing each piece carefully under running water, scrubbing the scales and poking fingers into icky crevices, anointing each piece with flour and salt, rubbing the mixture in, letting it sit 10 minutes, and then washing everything one more time, I was never more closely connected to my bloodline. It came to me easily, though it was the first time I had actually done it from beginning to end. I was a natural, I felt at ease. I had learned my lessons well from years of bearing witness.
Here in America, the process is supremely sanitized. Cleaned, deboned and ready to cook, artfully-arranged slices are put on display, eliminating consumer participation in so many crucial steps of the acquisition process. It reminds me of a time when a friend confessed she hated having a C-Section. “I feel cheated of a natural birth,” she had said, “I know I should be grateful for a healthy delivery, but I can’t help feeling duped.” Oddly enough, this is exactly how I feel walking into my neighborhood Safeway or Chinese supermarket—clinical, disconnected, disappointingly sterile.
I can imagine how hard this must be for vegetarians to comprehend. They are as much products of their socialization as I am of mine, but the human relationship to food is an intimate one, and in a gourmand community like mine, it includes passion, devotion, and obsession. Having incorporated so many elements not quite our own on the long road from religious refugees to a privileged, respected, and still relatively unknown minority, our cuisine and its methods are understandably something we Parsis are immensely proud of. (So if you have considered offering a thoughtless suggestion like “Why don’t you turn vegetarian?” please know we’re already debating how much spice to marinate your brain in for those breakfast cutlets tomorrow.)
From what I’ve learned in my score and 15 years on god’s bounteous earth, it is that life has a way of presenting precisely what you fight. So a fishless future isn’t the worst fate that can befall me. (I’m so glad you can’t see my dilated pupils and crossed fingers right now.) But I also know that I am the honored carrier of the DNA of a long line of fin fans, and this—both the process and the end result— is one of my life’s joys.
…Unto us a Son is given
Nope, not referring to Jesus.
Tunneling through me in record time in a determined bid to flag off the holiday season, our wee Liebling made his entrance into the world last month. Specifically, into a room full of cheering nurses, an ecstatic daddy, a relieved doula, and our darling gynecologist, who I am convinced is the planet’s most amazing doctor.
Was I in the room too? I suppose so. But somewhere halfway through that first wail, as he was lifted out of my body and I lay back relieved and thankful for not pooping after all, I suspect I ceased to exist in the way I had for 36 years. Without moving a muscle, my sense of self took a quiet step back, and I watched my heart float outside of me and lodge itself firmly into that tiny, wriggling body. This feeling, it isn’t love. It’s unadulterated biology. And us, we’re the mere puppets of a flipped switch.
I’d have burst into song, had I the energy and wherewithal after an intense labor sans pain medication, but this played in my head instead, and since I’m doing such a botched-up job of this birth announcement, I’m going to rely on good old Disney to convey my emotions:
Over the past month, I’ve been high on happy-making hormones. (Clearly, birthing a human does nothing to change pre-existing alliteration allergies.) Except for the day he turned a week old and I wept that he’d head off to college soon and leave us. Apparently, there are parents who stand outside their kids’ dorm windows and secretly follow them on their honeymoon and I don’t know why you’re looking at me that way, I’m only educating you about the world, really. I’d just watch over him from a safe distance. Of 3 inches.
In other news, these lines will never mean the same thing again:
So there we have it. Seven years since the day we met and knew this was to be, we’ve been married four, moved continents, made a home and a life together in a gorgeous corner of the world, and created a person we hope will share our love of bacon and potty jokes. (What? Everybody has their dreams!)
Now excuse me while I take off to get my fix of milk-and-skin-and-mewling-and-spit-up. We hope you’ll wish us well and pardon erratic blogging behavior. There’s a little babe-on-a-nose that needs all our besottedness.
Merry Christmas! Joy to the world! Earth today rejoices!
This past month, I’ve been revisiting definitions of home. Specifically, how my notion of the word itself has changed, from an intensely familiar brick-and-mortar space bearing my history and tales of generations of family, to new lands: both geographical and synaptical, and finally to the person I come home to roost with each day. It’s a fascinating concept, this little word, but I have no bandwidth to say anything new about it presently. So here’s another reheated (read previously-published) piece from India Currents magazine about home, histories, and belonging. What do you think of when you think of home?
We sit at a table crowded with spiced, steaming tea cups, a study in diversity. One whose bronzed, gleaming skin carries tales of her ocean-framed ancestors. Another, pale, fair, with whispers of ancient Persia in her veins, and the third, of the same people, her bloodline mapping the landscape of two great nations.
Between us, live roots and displacement. Among us, rock movements and plane rides and boat journeys from 1200 years ago. We are of people who have shifted. Whose sensibilities and histories have shifted. People who once belonged, then belonged again, spun in cycles of precarious identity. Ripped from their homeland by threat, under duress and desire to build a life beyond living.
Around this table covered in cheap formica we sit, the Buddhist from Colombo, the Parsis from Karachi and Bombay, who have known other lands as rank strangers, then intimately, as a secret shared on a one night stand. We congregate our beings around disposable cups of chai and unleash our stories.
Time, it melts away. We jump off a cliff in the 10th century, swing past invasions, conversions, and long bloody, migrations, crash land into civil war and hurried overnight departures, past the smell of burning flesh and singed spirits, yank and sow roots stripped to rawness, touchdown in subcontinental cities where lineage marched to a temporary tune, then continent-hop over to Africa, to North America, the luckiest among us belonging only to two places, now gathered here in these cities around the Bay, where a microclimate, a microculture, a microuniverse of one can safely exist.
Turning around in unison, we nod to our waiting ancestors. It’s alright, we say, you survived, and then revert to the vapors rising out of our drinks, to punctuate our sagas with a period.
Through the hollows of their eyes, Fate stands silently by, eraser in hand, knowing her day will come again.
This piece appeared under another title in India Currents magazine last Fall. I’m sharing it here, given that recent geo-political developments sadly keep it as relevant as ever.
Apologies for being AWOL. Daily life currently demands huge parts of me and the best I can do is ride the wave.
On a crisp September morning, a dozen years ago, I emerged into the sunshine feeling happy and ravenous. Having finished an intense summer at Syracuse University’s famed Newhouse School of Communications, I was easing into the Fall semester, thoroughly enjoying the thrill of learning. Breakfast was on my mind as I walked over to the Schine student center and waited in line for an omelet. Maybe I’ll add hash browns and toast, I was thinking, when an undergraduate student interrupted my thoughts. “What are they showing on those screens,” she asked, and gestured toward two pull-down panels showing planes and buildings and smoke. “Probably a movie,” I shrugged and took my tray over to a table to watch. That omelet, those potatoes, and the carefully buttered toast grew cold and unwanted as I watched with dilated pupils and mouth agape a moment that changed the course of history.
Of course, when events occur that change lives, nations and entire lexicons, you hardly hear the warning bells right away. The enormity of shift that will follow isn’t always estimated accurately. Especially when you are a recently-turned 23-year-old who landed in the country with two bulging suitcases and a crock of naiveté. What I remember of the day is the not-so-flattering peach top I had worn with my jeans, a leaf pattern around the neckline. What I remember is running through the Bird library, to tell a family friend who had already heard. I remember being inundated with calls from folks in India, because nobody knew the difference between New York the city and the state—or maybe they didn’t care. I remember being in the World Trade Center, a mere three weeks earlier. I remember a picture taken in its foreground, young 20-somethings leaning into each other, laughing into the camera, unaware that this would be the last time we would see the twin towers standing.
You don’t need me to tell you that America changed that day, twelve years ago. Human anguish, horror and anger hit all life within a 1000-mile radius like a ton of bricks. Rhetoric and war and a decade long manhunt were only the most high-profile casualties of this emotional earthquake that equally crumbled bricks and the notions of security, terror and insularity. America darkened, its economy crashed, and against the backdrop of the nation’s struggles, my own newly-minted life in the country rode the crests and troughs of immigrant life. Industries creaked to a crawl, jobs grew scarce, and the then-President’s reaction to this atrocity bubbled over and scorched lands and people. Relatively cocooned in my student existence, grad school provided a buffer from the ugly realities of the next year. But there comes a time when the door is thrown open and you finally must walk.
The graduating class of 2002 walked out into a drastically changed reality—one of a tanked economy, financial uncertainty, and no warm welcome from a suddenly hostile America. Engineering students, fattened on stories of bulky sign-on bonuses and Silicon Valley embraces, felt like dethroned monarchs. Ph.D. candidates desperately delayed graduation for the next few years. Young people from India who never had to lift a finger in their lives were now grunting it out in food courts, temp jobs, and limited projects, the golden H1-B nowhere in sight. Many returned to their home countries. The ones with loans looked on in despair as ends simply refused to meet. America’s manpower loss, a small casualty in the face of the larger horror, was India and China’s gain.
Two years later, another war was announced. And I’ve always wondered how many rallied against it only for the havoc it would further wreak on their lives. Even as I traveled and worked and plodded along my own 20s journey of self-discovery, relationships and independent living, the rumble of 9/11 was never too far away. Millions before us were fed narratives of the American Dream, but we, those who arrived in the year of 9/11, saw the country at her naked worst—her breath craggy, her vision blurred, refracting her trauma on other innocents of the world.
I sometimes wonder how it must have felt, being part of the wave before that date seared in collective memory. To have known the tech boom, the easy green cards, the ubergenerous land of plenty. A country preceding brown skin hostility. A time before I had to say my name, spell it out, and quickly share I wasn’t Muslim even to my fellow Indians, because my horns, you see, were simply waiting to burst from my skull if I happened to be one.
A dozen years later, as I write this from my serene couch in the heart of Silicon Valley, I marvel at how we survived—both America and I, on our respective but not discrete journeys. That we held on through the harsh times with resilience I didn’t know existed. That it is this country, and not the land of my birth, that has taken me on the ride of a lifetime—one I know is far from over yet.
Maybe we choose some of our difficulties. Or perhaps they choose us. We come out on the other side with battle wounds and weary spirits, but I live with the faith that I survived—and the hope that America, strange bedfellow in a stranger journey, will as well.
I’ve been terribly remiss about blogging (as is apparent, how clever of me to point it out!) and am going to blame it squarely on eustress: good stress caused by positive life changes, in this case a new job, a visit from family, travel, several celebrations, and the contradictory urge to romance my couch and see no one but my Boy.
With that long-winded excuse out of the way, let’s collectively acknowledge some fun milestones in this, the best of months:
In Other News…
When the Boy’s brother got married last year, I heard a strange word for the first time: “co-sister”. Apparently, in the south of India, this term denotes women married to brothers. Being a similar combination of un-Southern and irreverent, my sister-in-law (the one of cake fame above) and I cracked up over the term, came up with instagram hashtags for it, invented a co-sister ghetto sign, and even harmonized “Hey sister, co-sister” (Lady Marmalade). Can you tell I love her? Will I be forever banned from kanjeevarams and mallige for this? *beats chest at the thought of no more bisibele bhaath in her life and eyes some Angus divinity in its place*
My 18-month-old niece called me this morning. She is currently visiting family in Texas, saw her mother’s phone lying around, found my contact on it, dialed, and chirped “Hi OJ Mami!” When my uterus finally un-puddles itself from the floor, I can’t wait to watch her in mid-toddlerhood-almost-preteen action.
We’ve been taking visiting friends and family to this Gujarati thali place that serves the most amazing shrikhand and khichdi, among other delicacies, but I won’t be going back for a bit, because the last time I had 5 helpings of khichdi and they started looking at me funny and avoiding my gaze and I’m mortified that I might have eaten them out of business. This redness of face isn’t rosacea, my friends, it’s ignominy.
How do you solve a problem like more khichdi?
How do you turn a seventh helping down?
How do you walk away from yummy khichdeeeeeeee?
Ignore the glutton, she’s just being a clown.
Swimming: I’ve been the resident hippo lately, breast-stroking gently through cool, turquoise waters on these warm summer days while our American neighbors wear toddler-sized swimwear, chug beers, burn themselves to a crisp, toss their hair and pose, and do everything but swim. Most puzzling, this behavior.
Books: Sindh: Stories From a Vanished Homeland, by Saaz Aggarwal, and To Marry An English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD Wallace. Both recommended for history buffs, albeit very different eras and geographies.
Heard in the OJ-Boy home:
Me: I think I’m getting food-averse. I don’t think I’m so interested in it anymore.
The Boy: Good. Now we can buy a house next year.
Adios, my friends, pardon my future busybeeness, although I will put up a recently-published article before the month is out and would love to hear your thoughts!