Platform Three, Part Two

6 Jul

For Part 1 of this story, go here.

 

Kem chhe, Persis,” he asked gently, his eyes never leaving hers. Persis stopped to breathe deeply. In that breath, she traversed half a lifetime, to a place when, in their early twenties and giddily in love, Lohrasp had expressed his desire and devotion, and she had reciprocated fervently. He was her college friend Hutoxi’s brother, and Persis had amazed her parents, first with her dedication to studying for her B.Com. examinations at Hutoxi’s home and then by the poor percentage she had earned in spite of it. Secure in a moderately-paying job at State Bank, Lohrasp had brought up the issue of marriage with his widowed mother, to be met with hysteria, refusal, and emotional blackmail. ‘That colony girl’, Mrs. Dubash had ranted, was not good enough for her son, and he had no business picking his own life partner without his mother’s approval. Which girl from a decent family went and got herself picked by a boy instead of his family was what she would like to know, and nai jee, didn’t she know these aaj kaal ni chhokriyo with their short-short hair and midi skirts, fasaaoing poor innocent boys from good homes.

Persis had, at first, believed him when he assured her that it was a matter of time before his mother relented and saw her for the loving and beautiful girl she was. “Give her time, darling,” he’d whisper, stroking her hair and the nape of her neck as she buried her face into his chest on the rocks at Scandal Point. She wanted a life with this man who looked at her like the universe melted from around them when they were together. She wanted to wake up to the bob of his Adam’s apple each morning, hear him imitate Elvis and call her Priscilla; she wanted to cook akoori for their children on Sunday mornings and mock-scold him for leaving his shirts hanging on the backs of chairs instead of in the bathroom bucket. What was a little time when there was love to be won? They were young, they would wait.

Mrs. Dubash turned out to be made of sterner stuff than both her only son and his breathlessly waiting lady love anticipated. As Persis rejected many an admirer-with-a-willing-mother, waiting for her man to step up and make an honest woman out of her, Lohrasp battled cold wars, suicide threats and ultimatums from ‘the poor lonely woman who had brought him up as both father and mother’. Over the years, it dawned on Lohrasp that no woman would ever be good enough for him in his mother’s eyes, and she appeared happiest when he was within lilting distance, readily available to consume her elaborate meals and ministrations without a murmur. With his sister now living in America, Lohrasp was left with the sole responsibility of caring for their mother, which made it harder for him to take a heart-over-head decision. Still, Persis waited, but the wait lengthened into shadows and unspoken words and disappointment lingered at corners of her mouth, the weight of unendingness sagging her skin, small joys unnoticed, a slow shut-down of the heart. Then, there was silence.

Two decades later, when she heard from common friends that the old lady’s heart had given way, and, after her death, Lohrasp had shut the house and taken up a position as manager of a dharamshala in a small town near the Gujarat border, the details merely skimmed the surface of her thoughts. She had shut that chapter a long time ago and made peace with the circumstances of her life. Persis was not a woman of vociferous opinion, but she held a firm belief that Lohrasp was the only love of her life.

But now he was standing in front of her, still awaiting a response. “Hello,” she said quickly, in a voice that sounded like somebody else’s, his question left unanswered. They assessed each other, cautiously, then affectionately, letting little smiles slip through the tightness of their mouths. Him: Of medium height and muscular build, with darker skin than she remembered, his clean-shaven face framing a crooked-toothed smile. Her: Short, compact, with still-unlined creamy skin and tired grey eyes, gentle curls resting neatly around her earlobes, her clothes less fashionable than in their youth. Wordlessly, he unlatched the gate and gallantly stepped aside for her to walk through. Closing it behind him, he fell into step with her and they made their way to the beach.

The short stroll of less than a mile felt like a long walk home, with brief forays into unpleasant emotional alleys. Searing their silences were memories, reproaches, disappointments, and a litany of barely awakened what-ifs. With no immediate family left in Bombay once Mrs. Dubash had passed on, Lohrasp sought a change of scene in a bid to put his past behind him. The bitterness that was his mother’s legacy lurked in the corners of their lace-curtained home, and made him want to flee. Putting in his papers for voluntary retirement at the bank, he accepted a position at the Gholvad dharamshala and had been its manager since. He liked the solitude, the passengers who floated through, and grew accustomed to stars and waves for company. He would think of Persis now and then, a dull ache compressing his heart, as he wondered how things could have turned out differently. And now here she was, in the flesh, and his tongue had decided to play hide-and-seek.

They sat among the rocks, pretending neither recalled other similar evenings from a long-ago youth, and reconnected hesitantly. As Lohrasp stumbled over half-regrets, Persis spoke up quietly and without recrimination. Life had moved on, she pointed out, but it hadn’t completed passed them by. It was to be lived, no matter how late the chance was presented, and really, did affection and companionship have an expiry date? As Lohrasp raised his eyes to meet hers, he felt a spark of hope for the first time in decades, and allowed it to ignite a little Bunsen burner in his spirit. There was much to be said, pasts and futures to be discussed and debated, but for now, it would keep. For now, the present was plenty. Finally, he had a passenger who wasn’t just a passerby. And with that knowledge, Lohrasp and Persis made their way back to the dharamshala, where a just-roused group of tea-demanding neighbors were making plans to brighten up the evening.

~The End~

The Blog That Keeps on Giving / Platform 3

1 Jul

This blog, Wisdom Wears Neon Pyjamas Version 2.0, completes 7 years today. I began blogging on this platform at a time when I didn’t know what I’d be doing the next weekend. Years into the future was not even a consideration. I’ve written about it here, but pardon my middle-aged nostalgia–this little space of mine of the internet, carved out 9 1/2 years ago, has given me the community of a lifetime, and the older this blog and I grow, the less I take this blessing for granted. Even as I type this post, I am excitedly looking forward to meeting one of my earliest blog friends for the first time–9 years after we connected!

So thank you, all of you who show this corner of my world your love and appreciation. So much has changed for me in these past 7 years that it is reassuring to have a constant. These days, I choose to spend long, sunny afternoons snuggled with my Gummy Bear on our vast bed over hammering out a post (you have no idea how many times I’m tempted to write for all of 3 seconds before I go right back to inhaling that baby scent), I spend my days in endless cycles of three-hour blocks, I prefer to sing Five Little Ducks no less than 17 times a day rather than generate fresh content for this space, but I love this blog, I do, for it is the gift that keeps on giving, and I’m so glad to return to it again and again and again.

And now, because I must drop dead in the next 13 minutes if I am to survive tomorrow, without further ado, here is a little present. It’s a story I wrote a couple years ago and held close to my heart. It’s time now to let it go. Enjoy it, and for the sake of continuity–because it’s the third in a series–read Chapters One and Two first.

Adios, my dearies! Until we meet again.

~
Platform Three

Dawn came early to Soonawala Colony one April. Lights were switched on a full hour earlier than Alamai’s 6 am prayers, and sounds of sandwiches being wrapped and bags being zipped echoed across the chipped-tiled corridors. Persis Kerawala stood deep in thought in the middle of the obsessively tidy bedroom she shared with her older sister and lips pursed, tapped them with her forefinger. She went through a mental check-list of items and anxieties, shrugged off whatever was bothering her, and walked into the kitchen to share a cup of choi and a khaari biscuit with Dolat. Ten minutes later, bags zipped, front door locked (and checked thrice), hats on their short wavy hair, the Kerawala sisters were the first ones ready to join the Pardiwallas on the short drive to Bombay Central station. Across the hallway, they could hear Khursheed Madon goading her teenage son Daraius to pack his chappals, lest he roam around like a ghata-ghariya in Gholvad.

“Packed the pora-pao?” called out Sarosh, whose once-fit but now-generous frame was proof of his love for this Parsi breakfast staple. His wife assuaged his fear of going breakfastless on the three-hour train journey, even as Dolat and Persis listening outside smiled and rolled their eyes. As girls growing up in the colony, Sarosh had been their little errand boy, the one who ran down to the corner store to get soda for their father’s evening drink, passed on notes from admirers who wrote forced-rhyming lines to Persis in her younger days, appreciating her grey eyes, marble-like skin, and, although only the boldest mentioned it, her compact, pert figure, draped in the latest cuts from Maganbhai darji’s ‘foreign’ catalogs. It was a mystery to many why Persis had chosen to remain unmarried, because she certainly had her pick of the field at a time when the colony boys were angling to make her their wife.

A door opened upstairs and the sound of luggage being thumped down each step echoed across the corridors. Sanobar and Homyar appeared at the bottom of the stairs, bickering about the pros and cons of leaving the toilet window open. “Chee! Muo vaas-e-vaas aavse!” grumbled Sanobar, whose sensitive nose was perennially at odds with her spouse’s borderline agoraphobia. “Better than getting the house looted,” countered Homyar, who insisted it was only his cautious nature that made him want to shut most access points to rooms, and winked in greeting at the waiting sisters. Shortly after, the Madons—Sarosh, Khursheed and Daraius—emerged from their ground floor flat, the scent of freshly cooked omelets trailing them. Off they went, huddled in the Pardiwallas’ Scorpio, or, “packed like sardines”, like Sanobar liked to giggle. She had schooled at Presentation Convent in the southern hills of Kodaikanal, and never missed an opportunity to toss morsels of nun-crafted similes and proverbs at her friends and neighbors.

At Bombay Central, they joined other folks from the colony, also climbing out of taxis and cars, the men hoisting bags as the women took a head count of the younger children. Daraius kept an eye out for Jamasp Patel’s daughter Sanaeya, while hanging out with Khushroo and Feroz, his college-going—and therefore cool—buddies from building number 12. Once the list of picnickers had been called out and checked off, they hurried to Platform 3 to board the Saurashtra Express. “Roomal mooko, roomal mooko,” advised Silloo Damania, in an attempt to bag all the seats in the completely empty compartment. After much bustling, rearranging of luggage and silencing of whiny children, the group of 25 settled down, and the train gave a lurch and rumbled off to Gholvad—the destination of the annual Soonawala colony picnic.

Just past Dadar, the omelet packets were opened, passed around, their contents devoured in a matter of minutes. By the time, Andheri arrived, Roshan’s freshly made bhakras were being passed around and complimented on between mouthfuls. At Palghar, tender young coconuts, their mouths agape and spilling with sweet water, were passed through window bars, into the hands of waiting children first and their parents afterwards. Boisar brought the scent of fried chilies and crisp, spicy wadas stuffed in chutney-smeared pav, the vendor’s tray emptied by two dozen greedy mouths who smacked their lips and settled down for the remainder of the journey. The train slow-chugged into Gholvad, past sentinel-like banyan trees that gave the place its name, and, wheels screeching, came to a halt. The boisterous group, back to their pre-food coma-induced levels of excitement, tumbled onto the platform, and piled into autorickshaws and trr-trred away toward the blinding mirror of the sea.

Alighting at the Gholvad Dharamshala (for Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians only, announced a faded plaque on a crumbling wall), they lugged their bags up the steps into cool, white rooms with high ceilings and the sounds of pigeons gurgling outside the antique-paned windows. The manager was out, explained the local lad who served as Man Friday, and would be back by tea time. The group didn’t care, as they devoured a lunch of fried fish, prawn curry and rice, and fried papads before settling into their beds for a long siesta. The younger ones gathered on the long, sun-baked verandah for a game of Monopoly, and Persis could hear them giggle and bicker as the afternoon wore on. She sat up in bed with the latest copy of Reader’s Digest, flipping through articles on medical miracles and ordinary heroes. Dolat lay at the other end of the spacious room, gentle snores emanating from beneath the white sheet. The afternoon streamed in through open windows, the sound of the sea coming into shore, the chirp of a solitary bird, the forthright sunlight with no pretences. Feeling restless, Persis got out of bed, stuffed her feet in slippers, and decided to take a walk around the property. Stepping away from the old white bungalow with its red tiled roof, she walked in the orchard that lay sprawled on either side. Low chikoo trees and groves of guava and litchis formed a cool respite from the summer heat and she was grateful for the solitude and shade. Her feet crunched on a carpet of dry leaves and she walked leisurely toward the gate at the other end. Emerging into the sunlight, she saw a fence with a white gate. Beyond that, was the sea.

“It’s low tide right now,” spoke a voice behind her, as her heart lurched and her feet stayed rooted. She slowly turned around to find him watching her calmly, the love of her youth, his boyish crinkled-at-the-corner eyes belying the touches of grey at his temples.

 

To be continued…..

Petrichor

10 Jun

A.k.a. June Swoon

The sky is overcast. We may even see six drops of precipitation if we are lucky. I’ve been in California long enough to not count on it. Build my hopes, only to see them knocked down with one poof of a blowaway cloud. So I’m going to close my eyes and imagine:

The road from The Bombay Store to Flora Fountain is slick and glistening from the first monsoon showers. The air crackles with wetness. Coolness. Pointy peaks of exhilaration. I am, absurdly, alone as I run along the streets, swooping through my imagination, in a world bereft of traffic and noise and fumes, starring in my very own silent movie.

Kala Ghoda approaches, and I irrationally resent my phone for auto-correcting my favorite landmark. No time to stop by at Rhythm House today, deserted just like these streets. In this version of my daydream, people are erased. No one is allowed to alter the synergy between me and my city, permeate this sacred space between us with their own agenda.

I am flying, my feet barely grazing the tar, embracing spaces and memories: the synagogue, art galleries, and museum. Cinema, antiques, and almost-love. Silver jewelry from my teenage years, nights out at eateries too unhygienic for my upbringing. Wooden steering wheels at the Yacht Club, crispy duck, a burger now banned, the wooden lattice of the Time & Talents club, and finally, the sea.

On the eve of my 29th birthday, as the clock readied to strike 12, a horse-drawn carriage pulled up by this very waterside, a surprise from indulgent friends. Off we cantered into the night, these two sweet men smiling at my elation, as I waved and blew kisses into the ether of a city sinking into uneasy slumber.

I must not halt, for the dream will end, and with it, a part of me lovingly coddled. Onward I stream to Sassoon Dock, Colaba Market, Navy Nagar and Land’s End, auto-correct repeatedly frustrating my typing efforts and reinforcing my distance from home. The evening is green as it drips toward night, and my city is a vacuum: no people, no creatures, all mine mine mine. I morph. I inflate. Giantesque, I rise above dusty skies. And gather it clattering: bridges, buildings, salt water and trees into a clumsy, awkward, heartbroken embrace. We rock, we croon, and I hum with a lover’s instinct.

Looking down at my arms, a pair of eyes–exactly mine in a smaller face–stare inquiringly at me. A chubby fist explores my moist face. My world self-folds into a soft muslin envelope, awaiting future summons. The clouds have long dissipated. For now, I am back in my baby’s familiar, sunny universe again.

The Blogger Formerly Known As OJ

20 Apr

Helloooooo! Greetings from Namibia!

Just kidding.

Or not.

Because SAHMhood is sometimes like being in a desert. Maybe on a desert island. Where you just got done weaving your colorful hammock of artisan rope and are about to climb into it when wait! Laat Saab needs his doodoo-on-the-rocks. Make it a large one. Oh, and could you have that ready in 3.457298 seconds, because there are some pretty pitch-perfect wails coming your way.

So.

I’ve been doing grrrrreat you guys! Just GRRRReat. Training for a marathon and all. Don’t you just love my dedication? We begin training at 6 am (human alarm included in the package deal) and basically drop dead after Diaper #7. The obstacle course, where I get to skip over Blue Ellie and Hormuz the Horse in a bid to dash toward Moaning Myrtle’s just-born twin is where I truly shine. I even have one ankle left to prove it!

And in other news, we now have a Very Valuable Cooking Aunty. Seriously, that’s her name. Or not. I can’t share it with you because then you’d take her away from me and I’d be left to wallow in my dal-less state. Cooking Aunty is a proper Poon-jabbi, so the Boy, drawing on his Dally childhood, educated me about the ways of Them Up Nawth. Apparently, I need to address everything with a ‘jee’. But Cooking Aunty looks at me funny when I ask her not to add the Dhaniajee to the Bainganjee. Why jee? Am I blundering jee? Me, the poor heathen from Bombayjee.

Cooking Aunty firmly notified me that she is ‘vag’. And I’ve been hurling all 700 lbs of puppy fat at that imagery, but it won’t budge from my head. Or ‘had’. You pick, jee. In the meantime, we’ll continue eating…you-know-what jee.

Oops, there stirs my Pork Chop. I have 6 seconds to share the rest of my exciting life with you:

6. I subscribed to Birchbox, received my first box in March, and OMIGOD YOU GUYS! The Boy just got bumped to Love of My Life position #3. You wants this product. You needs this product. You totalutely musts this product. Review coming up soon! (10 years is ‘soon’ if there are no posts in-between. Technically speaking.)

5. I had this divinity last Thursday. And walked the streets of San Francisco LIKE A NORMAL PERSON (a.k.a. Carrier of One Small Handbag). Am I shouting? Could you plug those ears? This could get out of hand.

4. I’m attending what promises to be an interesting event at Santa Clara’s University’s de Saisset Museum this week. The universe and its grandfather(jee) knows about my fascination with the partition, so this should come as no surprise:

Voices of Partition

Thursday, April 23, 2015, 6:30 p.m.

Nearly 2 million people died and over 15 million were uprooted during the 1947 Partition of South Asia. Explore the Partition through a free screening and crowd-sourced survivor footage followed by witnesses sharing their stories. This program is co-presented by the 1947 Partition Archive and the de Saisset Museum with support from API Chaya.

 

3. The Ghost of Reader Past:

The Ghost of Reader Present:

women-and-weight-loss-tamasha

The Ghost of Reader Future:

2. I need cropped white denims for the Spring that don’t look like Jack the Ripper went blade-happy on them. Gimme label/store/link suggestions, y’all!

 

1. We made it all the way to #1! Woot!

Okay, that was my downtime for the decade. See you in 2025!

Just kidding.

Or not.

As they say in OJville,

bye-shy, jee!

*poof*

Lovelocked

11 Mar

January 31, 2013. 5.30 am. Silicon Valley.

The peal of my ringtone pierced the dark, as I groped in my sleep for the ‘phone. “They’re taking him in,” said a familiar voice at the other end. “I’m on my way,” I responded before the line went dead and adrenalin kicked in. Three hours later, I was buckling my seat belt as the aircraft taxied on the runway, ready to begin its transatlantic journey.

January 30, 2013. Time unknown. The Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

He was all of 28 and engaged to be married at the end of the year. His fiance was an ICU nurse at a prominent South Bombay hospital. That is all we know of him, other than the fact that the crash killed him instantly. And in his death, he gave a new lease of life through his organs to no less than five people, my loved one among them.

Present day. Silicon Valley.

It’s been more than two years since the incidents above. I’ve moved homes, switched jobs, acquired another car, waddled through a pregnancy, and now have an infant (yes, we graduated from Senior Newborn last month!) Yet, there has not been a day since January 31, 2013 that I have not blessed and thanked this young man’s soul for his generosity, foresight, and incredible humanity. There has not been a day since January 31, 2013 that I have not pondered on how to pay it forward. Finally, last November, two days before our Liebling made his appearance, I took the plunge.

Ever since I can remember, my hair has been a topic of discussion. Friends and strangers would admire it at social events, Daddy would be upset every time I cut it, guys in college wrote shayaris and poems about it, and you folks were so generous in your compliments even when it wasn’t the point of the post. I suppose I took it for granted, because I’ve always been somewhat indifferent to it, maintaining that it is my mum’s genes and father’s regular oiling–and nothing I did–that are to be credited. I’ve worn it long, short, and every length in-between. It’s been occasionally highlighted, been its natural color and texture for most of its life cycle, and kept generally clean but otherwise not particularly obsessed over. Even now, with a few strands of white in it, I feel no dismay, for it is but the natural progression of things and vanity is not among my many faults. And yet, I can imagine what it must feel like to lose it. To have to go out in public and have people stare because you don’t conform to the norm. To have the choice of whether to grow it long or chop it off taken away from you. And because I can give no other organ while I am alive, and really wanted someone to benefit from it, I decided to give away my hair to Locks of Love.

In May 2014. I was in my first trimester.

In May 2014. I was in my first trimester.

Two days before our son was born, the Boy, somewhat sad but supportive as always, drove me to the salon and my trusted stylist Stefanie took care of things.

In November 2014. Two days before our baby was born. I loved how wavy pregnancy made my otherwise straight hair!

In November 2014. Two days before our baby was born. I loved how wavy pregnancy made my otherwise straight hair!

It was quick, painless, and joyful. Some little one somewhere (or two, since Stefanie said it was a lot of hair) would have a wig of natural hair to make their cancer journey easier. A weight, both literal and metaphorical, had been lifted off my head. And the smile on my Boy’s face as I walked out assured me he approved as well.

Chop chop!

Chop chop!

That was more than 3 months ago. Since then, I’ve enjoyed my shorter, more manageable locks that gently graze my shoulders and keep out of my busy way. I’m grateful for the shorter length, since my baby has taken to grabbing strands with gusto. I may very well be as bald as him soon if this continues. And because childbirth has given me a newfound and immense respect for the human body, I will know better than to take it for granted when it grows back.

The purpose of this post is to share what’s been in my heart and on my mind, and to humbly request you to think about it as well. It is such a miniscule act in the face of that nameless young man’s charity that I would be embarrassed if you praised it. (So don’t!) Do think about being an organ donor. Each of us has the power to bestow life. And in the meantime, if all you have to give is your hair, you can now do it in India as well. Someday, it will age, grey, and fall off anyway. But as long as it’s healthy and on your head, you’ve got a lot more than a child who could do with some.

Have you ever committed to donating an organ? Please share in the comments section and inspire the rest of us.

And pssst! You guys are the first to know: I’m planning to grow it so I can do this again. :)

A Comprehensive Dictionary of Parenting for Beginners

3 Feb
  • Diaper: A piece of absorbent cloth Mummy wears between her legs because between feeds and singing and communing with the washing basket, a toilet is a once-familiar entity in a faraway universe.
  • Sleep: Word not found.
  • Blowout: Since we’re in polite company, let’s just say it’s not the fancy things a dryer does to your hair.
  • Midnight feast: Sod Blyton, sod Mallory Towers, it’s a full blown party of one to which a certain someone’s parents are very reluctant invitees.
  • Rocking: Formerly used as a descriptor for parties and weekends, this calorie-burning tool is the perfect substitute for pumping weights.
  • Shhhh: What you find yourself saying to the person responsible for 50% of Creature, because:
    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
  • Fun: Non-REM cycles of shut-eye.
  • Schedule: That hilarious entity that people who haven’t birthed a person ask you to share. Also known as “When’s a good time to chat?” Erm, 12 years sound good to you?
  • Jelly: Formerly an edible substance, now an apt descriptor for your mid section. Also, how your innards feel when a newborn smile is bestowed.
  • Sleep: Word not found.
  • Doorbanger: A special kind of Beelzebub spawned for the sole purpose of waking your finally-asleep child.
  • Anticlimax: Fitting into your pre-pregnancy jeans a few weeks after delivery, only to have them puked on three minutes later.
  • Social life: Be grateful you have the latter word. ‘Nuff said.
  • Auto pilot: Discovering yourself swaying side to side long after the baby was put down.
  • Freedom: One whole hour of your body being your own. 60 entire minutes. That’s 3600 seconds of alone time. What Marquez meant when he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • Sleep: Word not found. Stop making up lingo.
  • Parenting: An extreme sport designed to challenge every ligament in your body and synapse in your brain. Not for the faint of heart, this lethal activity will put you through the shredder and your entrails will emerge smiling.
  • Spouse: Trusted general of your tag team. Your partner in tasks of increasing difficulty. The one who has your back and frequently rubs it too. Future old age home roommate if you mess up this gig.
  • Luxury: A hot shower. Water! Soap! And preferably no one else in the bathroom.
  • Love: An abysmally inadequate word to describe the tidal wave of tenderness, fierceness, punch-me-breathless-with-mineness, indescribable biologically engineered response that comes with the territory. Universally unique. Uniquely universal. Blabber blabber. Gufhndslsladpoo.
  • Romance: Having a free hand to hold your hubby’s.
  • Spatial intelligence: The higher ability to know your boob from your face. I’ll get there. Someday.
  • Pain: You think you know all about that from going through labor. And then you watch your child being punctured by needles.
  • Blessing: Lying in bed at night, parked between a snorer and a tooter, congratulating yourself on landing two gorgeous men.
  • Insanity: Loving every bit of this existence and not wanting it to change a jot. (Wait…could the poop be less ummm…poopy?)
  • Sleep: Persistent little gnat, aren’t you? Come back in 20 years, I’ll have an answer for you.
  • The Business of Fish

    16 Jan

    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.

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