Tag Archives: America

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? 🙂

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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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Suffering September

11 Sep

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.

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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.

The Non-Redundant Indian

5 May

This piece was originally published in this month’s issue of India Currents magazine.

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As a keen follower of Indian politics and the upcoming national elections, and someone who is very active on social media year-round, I have lately been confronted by an interesting phenomenon: The tendency of resident Indians to a) diss NRIs and render them irrelevant by virtue of not residing in the country anymore, and b) actively criticize and debar them from having an opinion about their home country. The logic: You left, therefore you have no right to a voice. So that you understand exactly what I mean, here is a sampling of comments about non-resident Indians by people ostensibly living in India:

NRI types who would go out on a limb for foreign citizenship are the first to invoke patriotism.” (This tweet has been retweeted 15 times and favorite 4 times, so clearly others share this sentiment.)

No one will give you more concerned perceptive and farsighted advises (sic) on how India should be ruled than a NRI who has no plans to return ever!” (7 retweets and 6 favorites.)

All these NRI types vote for Modi, they’re the ones funding him, and we’re left to suffer.” (125 comments on Facebook, of which 83 were in agreement with the sentiment.)

Nasty comments and raging debates on Facebook apart, I and several of my fellow NRIs sense a thinly-veiled resentment directed toward us. Past what may or may not be jealousy of about perceived better living standards, or a residual sense of abandonment, there is the not-so-subtle accusation of betrayal and it scowls “You left.”

Let’s get some basic facts first: Of the 22 million Indians living outside India, at least 10 million still hold an Indian passport. Remittances to India totaled to $70 billion at last count, amounting to 4% of the country’s GDP. Yes, NRIs fund political parties they believe in. And yet, how many Indians in India do you know who would do the same? If you think being an NRI is all political money talk, think again: more than 50% of the funding for India’s top education nonprofit comes from the US, Indians abroad work beyond their full time jobs to actively volunteer for causes back home that range from education to disability to maternal health issues. I am likely to be an exception in that I volunteer for no less than 4 nonprofits working in India. But working right alongside me are Indians who have been here anywhere between 5 and 35 years. Those who form part of the “stop complaining and get it done brigade”. Those who put their money where their mouth is and ensure that millions can access the basic rights that we enjoy in our new countries—ones that successive governments have failed to provide Indians. For this, we are not even given our basic right to vote through consulates, and have to either spend on flying ourselves down to do it— a very expensive proposition, and not always logistically possible—or watch in silence as our country goes to polls and our voices are deemed irrelevant.

I have been on both sides of this apparent divide. As someone who has spent 5-year chunks of time in the US and then India and now the US again, I have been witness to plenty of non-resident Indians and Indian non-residents, a term I used to describe the many people encountered who complain loudly about the state of affairs, won’t move a finger to change them, and, while physically present in the country, won’t even bother to visit a polling booth. “What’s going to change,” I am defiantly asked, and labeled a sentimental fool for hoping.

When it comes to chowing down the latest New Zealand rack of lamb recipe that costs the equivalent of the working class’ monthly paycheck or going berserk at the Zara sale, plenty of Indians will be the first to declare that with the world going global now, it doesn’t matter where we live. Why then this discrimination against those who choose for whatever reason to live away from their homeland? Our money is gladly accepted, Indian-origin celebrities and achievers are proudly touted by the motherland as one of their own, but when it comes to having an opinion about the country we grew up in, we’re suddenly pariahs? It is all very convenient to declare oneself a global citizen and then deny a fellow Indian the right to a voice about his/her country based on their location—rest assured it reeks of hypocrisy.

One argument against non-resident Indians is that we are unaware of the ground realities by virtue of being physically removed from them. This is certainly true of some part of the NRI population. It is also equally true of some part of the resident Indian population. But in this age of global connectivity, instant news updates, round-the-clock media, and Twitter frenzy, the premise does not hold true anymore. Gone are the days when we would land in India after a span of several years, only to find we were serious misfits and the country of our birth was unrecognizable to us. More than ever, with the first generation Indian migrant population ballooning, especially in places like Silicon Valley, service providers, both Indian and local, have worked toward bringing the land into our homes on a daily basis. Our passports are perceived as unavoidable inconveniences, temporary pit-stops on the way to other colored ones, and our very nationality is questioned for our audacity in getting on a plane out of the country.

Over the last decade, there have been waves of NRIs returning to their home country, not just to visit, but to establish roots and make a life where they started theirs. There are others who divide their time between lands. Whether we choose to return or stay on, our cultural and emotional connection is, believe it or not, stronger than the iron-clad US immigration system, and no, we don’t all come down in droves every December to whine about smog and dug-up footpaths and the myriad failures of state that seem to especially embarrass you in our presence. Our ties to India are primarily emotional. Almost all first-generation Indians still have some family there, and, as is human, we worry about their safety, comfort, and peace, as they worry about ours each time there is a mass threat. The sheer number of phone plans and calling cards and now video conferencing options are testimony to our efforts to remain connected to our loved ones, and the land of our birth and heart.

It is time our opinions are heard and considered—if only for the unique perspectives we bring from being exposed to various governance systems around the world. We live in 205 countries and it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. We have learned to discard that sense of entitlement that many in our old home still carry, and build lives and families and meaningful existences in all corners of the globe, while a piece of our heart remains where you live. No Indian, resident or otherwise, has the right—moral or legal—to tell another their opinion is irrelevant. If we are to raise India to new heights, and truly make her an equal, competent world player, can we really afford to discount 22 million of her people?

 

Book Review: Salaam, Love

25 Mar

Two years ago, aboard a Eurostar train to Paris, I spent a two-hour journey reading a collection of essays called Love, Inshallah. The book was a pioneering effort for 2 important reasons: it showcased Islam in America in all its glorious diversity, and it projected a strong female voice, breaking cultural and religious stereotypes of docile, homogenous, powerless women trapped in a world not of their choosing.

When I blogged about Love, Inshallah, I did not know the women behind the book. Turns out Ayesha Mattu, one of its two editors, had read my post and knew who Orange Jammies was when we met as part of a writers’ circle. Why am I telling you this? Because I need to insert a disclaimer that by the time I read Salaam, Love last month, Ayesha was (and is) a friend.

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[Credits: OJ, her MotoX phone, and good old Instagram.]

 Islam. Is there any other word you can think of that conjures up stronger images, reactions, and sentiments across the world? Have any of you been told absolutely nothing, positive or negative, about the religion and its people, whilst growing up? The faith of 1.6 billion people around the globe is the subject of debate, attack, defense, paranoia, curiosity, and wild conjecture. Stereotypes are split sharply by gender, and the men usually get a bad rap. My own experiences with the faith are best reserved for a longer post, but know this: I have formally studied both the religion and its early culture, so I speak from a platform of at least some knowledge.

Salaam, Love is a sort-of sequel to Love, Inshallah. This collection of 22 deeply personal and frequently heartrending narratives by American Muslims smash the supposed monolith that Islam is perceived to be, and are shared by those who are typecast perhaps more than any other group I know: men. Frequently believed to be a conglomerate of beards, skullcaps, and patriarchal tyranny, Muslim men are the mythic bogeyman that women not of the faith are warned about. Looked at askance by even their own gender, it is often thought they have nothing to say, let alone feel or reflect.

Related from their perspectives and experiences as men, as Muslims, and just people, the book shares with us the passion, heartbreak, loss, confusion, imperfection, and intimacy that comes with being human. From within the framework of personal definitions of the faith to far outside it, these men: native-born Americans and immigrants, gay, straight and every orientation in-between, Caucasian, Arabic, South Asian and born into other faiths, tread delicate territory as they navigate their relationship with themselves, loved ones, and their identity, all the while leaving the door wide open for us to follow their journey. From infertility to infidelity, sexual confusion to questioning tradition, the gamut of their experiences leave us enriched, educated, and often plain agape.

The ‘unfeeling male’ stereotype evaporates before our eyes. The ‘benevolent patriarch’ melts into an unrecognizable puddle. And the ‘men don’t talk about their feelings’ notion? Smashed beyond smithereens. Where is the seemingly violent man who forces his will on life and women? And the pious one who holds dear his prayer mat? We meet agnostics, anti-traditionalists, believers, and those crippled with self-doubt. As we lurk, voyeurs in their vulnerable worlds, we soak in their reflected humanity, feel their pain, and exult in their expressions of happiness. Gender lines dissolve, and all that is left is unabashed, universal emotion and a strong sense of being people.

It is to the book’s credit that it allows us to build absolutely no preconceived notions and offers the literary equivalent of open-heart surgery. This is a brave, groundbreaking, and compelling collection that more people need to read, not just in America but around the world.

You can read the Love Inshallah blog here and purchase Salaam, Love from one of the several links on the home page. This is not a promotion or paid post. I only share with you stuff I enjoy myself! 🙂

 

Vivaldi’s Fifth

28 Feb

There are actually 5 seasons in America: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and California.

We just keep that last one under wraps to avoid being lynched by the poor sods in the rest of the country.

😛

Opposes/Supposes

11 Dec

I shared this with close friends exactly a year ago, and the question still haunts me, so I thought I’d put it out there for you guys to shed light on. Not your typical cheery holiday fare, I know.

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American rhetoric is littered with war words on a daily basis. The nation’s lexicon is so charged with conflict–the war against smoking, the battle against cancer, the fight to save a marriage–that every act, no matter how innocuous, is verbally militarized. So deeply entrenched are these cultural references to violence, that those raised in the country barely appear to notice. Is there anyone else who sees this? I can’t be the only one! Why don’t we question it? Is there any literature or research on this that would help me understand the phenomenon?