Tag Archives: Bombay

In An Anthology

26 Feb

A post I wrote on this blog more than 7 years ago took on a life of its own and first made its way to an online journal. I have the vaguest memory of receiving an email from the editor last year, mentioning it was going to be published in an anthology, to which my very enthusiastic response was:

“Oh, that’s wonderfzzzzzzzzz…..”

And so, when another emailed arrived two weeks ago, saying the book was now out, I had the pleasure of surprise all over again. It could be my family history of Alzheimer’s. Or the fact that I haven’t slept in 15 months. But yes, the anthology of which my piece is a part:

our stories too

 

 

Here is the link to the Amazon page. And here’s what the book is about:

Our Stories, Too is an eclectic collection of personal narratives by women from around the world: America, South Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia. You will see in these stories how the very ordinary threads of our lives are interwoven with the grand tapestries of world history. We are all, the famous and the unknown, part of the fabric. Gathered from 2013 – 2015 on themes of home, place, belonging, trauma and life change over time, these stories will take you behind the scenes into the lives of thirty three women.

Among my deepest beliefs is that we are made of water, cells, and stories. This, combined with my lifelong interest in gender, makes me honored to be a storyteller among women sharing their histories.

Okay, thank you, byebye! See you next week with Truesday Talezzzzzzzz……………..

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Some Dates More Than Others

10 Sep

Apologies for being AWOL! I’ve been cheating on this blog with other social media and should really enter rehab. Or maybe just post oftener. Which would you prefer? I hope you enjoy reading this straight-from-my-bleeding-heart piece. And come back after you’ve wiped off all the mushy goop! I’ve got more posts lined up as penance.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What you’ve been up to, the most annoying thing about last week, your biggest accomplishment since I last posted, to tell me that there’s a universe beyond Baby Pooped Today!!!….or simply to say hi? 🙂

~

As teenagers, we would go shopping and she’d rein me in. “No, you cannot buy all seven tee shirts. Choose two.” And I’d grumble that she was my mother all over again.
When I was between degrees and unemployed, I packed up my life in far too many boxes and landed up to share her little room with an eccentric heater in Philadelphia. Freezing Philly winters were no match for this girl’s warmth.
When the Boy and I decided to get married and all hell broke loose, she gave me the confidence that I was doing the right thing. She spent the night before my wedding holding my hand and the morning of shedding quiet tears as I was dressed and made up.
Her hand was on my shoulder as I signed on the dotted line that would legally permit me to torture the man forever.
Her baby is my first baby. Moving away from him was physically painful. Forever a cheerleader for little girls, he taught me how to be mad about baby boys, setting the stage for the full blown Raja Beta Syndrome I now live with.
I informed her I was pregnant using an inside joke we had laughed about since college.

RRV[Credit: Raja Ravi Varma, Lady Holding a Fruit]

I named my son in her honor.
Considerate even as a zygote, she arrived on the planet 10 months ahead of me to vet the place for suitability. “It’s fine,” she yelled, giving me two baby thumbs up, “head on down!”
This girl I met a month shy of 16, I don’t know how I would have lived these past 21 years without her. But thankfully, I don’t have to know. Because we’re going to grow old and crotchety and annoy the eyeroll out of each other across the continents, an Indian in America and an American in India, for that’s how we roll, her and I.
Happy birthday, my J.
I thank the powers that be for September 10th, 1977.

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 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.

Reheat, Serve

30 Oct

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?

~

Three Fates

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.

 

Rain Again

13 Mar

This piece was originally published in India Currents magazine. Written as an opinion piece for a print publication, it is longer than the usual post, so sit back with a nice cuppa. 🙂 And share your favorite memories of your favorite season (I’m hoping it’s the monsoon!) Oh, and for other rain-related posts, read this and this.

~

Three and a half decades ago, on a late July night in Bombay, the rain came clattering down on the red-tiled roof of the Parsi General Hospital. Just a few hours earlier, my mother had delivered her firstborn, and I lay in a bassinet under ultra violet light, tiny and jaundice-ridden, strangely soothed by the rumble of thunder even as other babies wailed and started.

In the years that followed, the only thing that made the start of the school year tolerable was the monsoon that accompanied it. Through the warm downpours and rising waters of my coastal city I would wade, delighted by the damp and the puddles and my red Bata gumboots.

My first solo travel experience happened at 18. And as the train wound through the emerald northern Maharashtra countryside, my face mirrored my elation. It was August, a steady stream of raindrops splashed my tee-shirt in the doorway, the wind was in my face, life lay waiting for me, I was young, and thrilled, and free!

Die-hard fans of summer can keep their king of fruit and the steaming, sultry weather that comes with it. Each year of my life, June was the Holy Grail, and the anticipation of rain was excruciating. Sometimes the clouds would gather, then flit away. Every pore of our bodies spewed humidity. Who could blame the brainfever bird in its near-hysterical state? I would fly between trees in agony if I could! Finally, at long painful last, the sky would darken, the drops would descend, falling faster and faster toward the eager earth, and all life would stop to watch  the miracle unfold.

Even as animals scuttled away to safety and dry spaces, human beings would emerge to partake of what was surely heaven’s blessing, laughing, splashing and exulting in the headiness of this grand new season. As the days turned into weeks, these same ribbons of water would cause damage to parts of the city, washing away homes and flooding the roads with their ferocity, but in that first moment, they were welcomed like god himself, all of his creatures rising to celebrate this magnificent arrival.

Indian movies are frequently accused of filling our brains with associations of rain and romance, but as a child I watched none. And yet, I cannot imagine anything more romantic than the end of summer and the lushness, virility and borderline-obscene greenness of this reckless season. Not for the monsoon is the polite chill of winter; not for the rains are the persistent claws of heat; this is a time for unbridled joy and a celebration of life and all that perpetuates its cycle.

My personal definition of rain was a downpour, one in which we could barely see beyond the cascading sheets of water. Anything less was a mere drizzle, and the sheer number of words used in India to describe rain based on its volume never fail to amaze. There is varsaad for rain—audible but not blinding; there is jhoptu for a brief, forceful shower; there was chhip-chhip for a slight drizzle; and naago varsaad for that rare combination of simultaneous rain and sun. There are also dhor maar (pouring) and ghela ni kani (like a madman), my favorite kind of precipitation. And these are just the Gujarati words! Then there are the Marathi rhymes our maids taught us about their beloved, benevolent bestower of prosperity on the fields back home.

The scent of wet earth is a cliché that’s been done to death—for a reason. Have you ever smelled anything that drove you to greater elation? That scooped you right up and plunged you straight into your childhood? That made you long for this unique and precious Indian phenomenon on this continent so far away?

When the skies turn stormy in our home country, Indians across the length and breadth of the land quicken their steps. They emerge onto rooftops and terraces and into narrow gulleys, calling out to friends and neighbors, their eyes trained skyward, their fragile hopes clutched deep within their hearts. The first drops are intercepted before they can embrace the earth, a collective gasp encircles the air, and exultation and dancing are de rigueur. No matter what their age, religion, or station, the advent of the monsoon is the Great Indian Equalizer for my people. In the land of a thousand festivals, this is probably the most universally celebrated and uniformly welcomed. And when that first deluge is done, leaves drip leaky silver missiles onto freshly cleaned streets, and to be sure, it has washed some of the dust off our souls.

When I landed in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day three years ago, I was newly-married and eager to join my spouse. It rained for six straight weeks after my arrival, and even as I laughed about being duped by “sunny” California, I could not have felt more accepted by my new patch of sky. Today, as the state battles the severest drought in its history, that gentle rain is but a memory that I hold on to with hope. A rainless existence affects me in ways deeper than just the physical. It strains the connection to my past, highlights the flaws in this Valley I am learning to befriend, and keeps me hankering for home.

It may sound dramatic, but it’s true: a lack of stormy weather parches my soul. I become unreasonable, forgetting the potholes and waterlogged streets of Bombay, and unfavorably comparing my desert-surfaced skin to the dewy glow of a season run wild to the strains of Hariharan’s “Indian Rain”, the aroma of ginger tea, and the crunch of freshly-fried pakodas. I swear up and down that I’ll visit Bombay this very monsoon, I rail at the maddeningly blue skies, and even as the rest of America faces extreme, dangerous weather, I can only wallow in my own drop-less fate as I watch the country of my birth drifting away on drain water.

Maybe it will rain before the winter is over. Maybe it will compensate for the chronically cloudless air. Maybe it will pour down in sheets as penance, and drive the weather channels into a frenzy. If this indeed manifests, as thousands across this state will it to, then in the midst of it all, remember to watch for a lone Indian woman standing in a parking lot, soaking it all up and deliriously reclaiming her connection to her ancient skies.

Love in the Age of Debussy

31 Oct

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” ~Anaïs Nin

And that, I suspect, is what I am doing today. Among the many posts I have shared about the city of my heart, I have failed to mention a key experience: music by the warm, glittering bay.

I don’t quite remember when I first stepped into the NCPA. Perhaps I was 6. Or younger. But my earliest memories include watching the Peanuts at the Tata Theatre and wearing a pleated plaid dress to watch a comedy at the Experimental, (for which the actors borrowed my water bottle as a prop). Music by the classical masters formed a backdrop to my life, and for this gift, I cannot give enough thanks.

The morning dress-up ritual for school was punctuated by the gentle strains of Strauss’ Blue Danube (keeps tension at bay, Daddy used to say) and I may have developed a Pavlovian response to Sunday dhandar, fried fish, and Mozart. Our neighbor two floors down was a piano teacher, whose fingers would fly across the ivories to amuse herself on weekends, and the strains of her layered, rich playing were heard throughout the building. Time trundled on as it is wont to. My teenage years brought on other, varied musical interests, and our piano teacher-neighbor passed away. But the enduring legacy of my upbringing was an emotional connection to the NCPA.

It was never just about the music. There were rituals, and unspoken codes, and if you were lucky (?) enough to be born and bred into them, then you’d pick them up effortlessly, sailing through the crimson-carpeted hallways with your pearls and grandma’s handbag, knowing not to clap between movements, and acknowledging other regulars with air kisses and tilts of the head. If you were a member, you received the month’s program in the mail, and knew precisely what pieces you’d be hearing that evening. You would know the insiders from the one-offs, who, clad in rani pink or bright orange, would shuffle unsurely toward the bar and food area, not knowing that the cold coffee and chicken sandwiches were the best things on the menu. Or that the delightful Stop Gaps, headed by good old Alfie, would hand out Christmas mementos after every concert of the Festival of Festival Music. And Karla Singh, god bless her, would be her funny, naughty emcee self and have us chuckling year after year.

There is a definitive confidence that comes from knowing your space. From viewing it from the inside out and breathing through the familiar placenta, rather than witnessing from extraneous layers. I’ve watched myself at concerts at London’s Barbican Centre and San Francisco’s Davies Hall. I’ve noticed how my posture, although tall, is just that slightest bit unsure. The music is exquisite. The experience, just as wonderful. But the space and the power that comes from knowing it intimately isn’t mine. At the Jamshed Bhabha or the Tata, I am in my element. I know exactly how many beads of perspiration will break out on my face in the dash from the car to its chandeliered entrance hallway. My shoulders are thrown back, a stole wrapped casually around them, the familiar faces popping up almost right away. That there, is my school English teacher. Over this way, three of my neighbors. Hi there, Cousin, new date? The low buzz and laughter, the making our way over to those familiar crimson seats amid exclamations of delight, hugs and hellos, the gentle bell peals and dimming of lights to indicate we should settle down, and then finally, the collective hush as the conductor strides onto the stage.

The music. The delicate, the thundering, the fragrant, the vicious, the gloom-and-doom, and infinitely worthy of elation, it scoops you up in scented lavender tissue, escorting you through mid-air to plunge you into an expansive pool of bubbling delight. You gasp, the heady rush leaving a buzz in your brain. Your feet are singing. Your fingers move of their own accord. Your liver is yodeling in high Cs. And you are enveloped in the purest delight this universe has to proffer.
You know your cues. And they, you. In these hallways of insiders, being of them matters, even if only just to themselves. There will always be the odd Bollywood superstar who will show up at (only) a big name concert, ruining the experience for the rest of us with traffic jams, security and paparazzi. And this is probably the only place in the world they will be pretty much left alone. For the star of the evening is the melody, and the people who make it flow.

In my misspent youth, I could calculate the seriousness of my relationships by the number of NCPA dates I’d had with the guy. Small wonder then, that I’m married to the one who topped the list. This piece of earth at the tail end of Bombay’s financial district, was, in our days of courtship, a world unto ourselves, a space so private amidst the public, that we still talk about it like we’re there. We still follow each season of the SOI, if only through the emails we receive. We still mention it when Zubin Mehta or Marat Bisangaliev are “in town”. And we wonder what Zane Dalal will be conducting at the grand finale. Plays are eagerly scanned for familiar names, half my college being the Bombay theatre scene today, and I am kept abreast of film festivals and gallery exhibits by a cousin who is a regular.

As the holiday season approaches, we’re already wistfully thinking about what we’ll be missing. Where we now live is undeniably glorious. But every so often, all one needs is one’s own comfortable home, with its breath of recycled air. And no matter where I park my boots, my beloved NCPA and I, we’re an item for life.