Tag Archives: childhood

My Brother’s Protector

16 Sep

I wrote this on Raksha Bandhan a few weeks ago, but didn’t get around to sharing it. So I’m posting it today, on the occasion of my brother’s birthday, with a few timing tweaks of course. For another birthday post, read this.

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The Parsi community I grew up in and around typically did not celebrate Raksha Bandhan. Seen as a Hindu custom not really applicable to ‘us’, I was looked at with mild amusement, an oddity for wrapping that rakhi around my brother’s wrist year after year. I did it because I liked the sentiment of sibling bonds. In return, I received an occasional cassette (remember those?) of whomever I was listening to back in the day. Frequently, I got nothing but an awkward hug. And it didn’t strike me as the least bit strange. Because the traditional notion of brother as Protector and Provider is, in our context, ridiculous.

Being five years older (and obviously wiser, more brilliant and all the good things that come with being born first), I rescued him from bullies, watched out for him, made up stories to scare the poop out of him, and will still gladly sit on anyone who is mean to the kid. (Note: ‘Kid’ is a 32-year-old married man.)

In my firmly feminist household, our mum didn’t wear the pants, she wore the whole suit. And our precious, gentle father’s ego wasn’t the least bit rattled by it. So nobody told me man = strong = protector, and to be honest, there was nothing much to protect me from in our relatively secure life in 1980s Bombay, where the most violence we saw was eccentric neighbors fighting over the last piece of pomfret in Moti’s basket. And so, imbuing Raksha Bandhan with no more meaning than sibling love, I continued to mail rakhis from wherever in the world I was.

“If anything, he should send you a rakhi,” pointed out the Boy this past Raksha Bandhan, because I am my brother’s protector, keeper of secrets, giver of unsolicited advice, and overall annoying big sister. My peaceful sage of a brother who can’t say boo to a goose isn’t going to rescue me from marauding hordes anytime soon. But he is the one–and very likely the only– person in the world who completely understands my uniquely South Bombay Parsi wear-your-slippers-or-we-can’t-take-you-to-the-Taj upbringing without judging it. He can give the most kickass financial advice, keep his trap shut when there’s something only he needs to know, stands up for me when our parents are being unreasonable pains, and we know we are each other’s family in a way even our parents can’t be.

As for the marauding hordes, they are welcome to try their luck. I foresee a whole bunch of men with excruciating hernias, begging the Boy to take me back.

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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.

Of Ghosts & Reliability

19 Mar

As a child, I could set the numerous antique clocks in our home by Nana’s schedule. At 7.30, she left for work. At precisely 1, she was back. Lunch was at 1.15, and tea was on the table at 3. By 3.30, she had begun to eye the aforementioned clocks as Chandra, washer of utensils and bathrooms in our home, had failed to stick to her arrival time yet again. On some occasions, she waddled in a mere half hour late. On others, there was no sighting at all. But we knew to wait a good hour before we gave up and reassigned her chores to other house help. This behavior never failed to elicit a caustic remark from my not-so-gentle grandmother:

“Chandra noh toh bhoot no bharoso!”, Chandra has all the reliability of a ghost.

Pronounced: Bhoo-t (as in toot), no (as in foe), bhur- (as in fur), -oh- (as in go), -so (as in toe)

Since few can claim to discern the inner workings of a spook’s mind, I suppose they must appear rather come-as-you-please to us mortals. Quite inconvenient, yes, but an entire genre of films would collapse if the spirit world gave advance notice of their appearances, not to mention we would never have the pleasure of this song:

Anyhoo, swooping back to ghostly (un)reliability, let’s practice our newly-acquired Parsipanu:

Dolly noh toh bhoot no bharoso. She confirms 6 o’clock and sashays in at a quarter past eight! 😡

You try:

OJ truly has bhoot no bharoso. Sometimes she’ll post every week, and at others, it’s twice a month. 😕

One last time:

Hey, is Behzad coming for the marathon?

Who knows if he’ll wake up? Enoh toh bhoot no bharoso!

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Who in your life has bhoot no bharoso?  And now that you are armed with this wonderfully evocative phrase, whom will you use it on?  Tell, tell! Bhoot stories welcome too! 😉

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.

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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.