Tag Archives: memories

Turning 10: 2006–2016

26 Jan

Truesday Tales is on break this week, for the following reason:

I’m trying to remember whether there was snow on the ground that day. I know it was bitingly cold, the sky was a glorious winter blue, the sun shone like a superstar who couldn’t acknowledge his best days were behind him, and my biggest concern was fitting all my precious shoes into two suitcases as I readied to begin a new chapter in the country of my birth.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I casually wrote a post called Shoes Blues. I even uploaded a picture, because that’s what you were supposed to do, nobody only read words. All of two people looked at the post, not counting myself. Who knew what this whole blogging thing was, anyway? It was January 26, 2006, and life was about to change big time. Only, I didn’t know back then that it was the blog that would propel the biggest changes of all and remain my steadiest constant over the next decade. A page I goofily christened Wisdom Wears Neon Pajamas, after the bright orange Eddie Bauer pjs I happened to be wearing that very minute. Yes, imagination has always been my strong suit.

It would be interesting to look back at my journey since: the amazing highs, the stressors only a twenty-something can handle without turning grey, the lessons that chiseled away at me, the teachers, nasty and kind. But I’m on a tight clock with a wakeful baby and don’t want to sound like a granny reliving her heyday. I’m a steady sort, a creature of habit. I’ve had the same bestie for 21 years. Ditto favorite authors and hairstyle. I like my coffee exactly the same each morning, and only the Boy’s surprises aren’t stressful for me. So it’s not really a whoa moment for me that this blogaroo baby has lasted a decade, because it’s been such fun! Really, such fun. It married words and community and fresh ideas from some terribly sparkling minds. And gifted me friendships. A solid, warm, sustaining sisterhood. So much gratitude to the universe for it all!

This blog isn’t going to last another decade. I have my doubts about the end of the year. But that’s okay, because everything has its time, and other platforms were bound to shunt out this early form of self-expression. So pardon me if, between the books I race to catch up on and the simmering something on the stove (hey, can’t have a birthday post without an alliteration!) and Herr Toddlemeister’s shenanigans, we don’t exactly party here anymore. But thanks for all the fish. For reading, chiming in, telling me that you exist. For seeing the heart on my sleeve and treating it gently. Funnily enough, only a clutch of folks in my offline life know that I have a blog, and that’s exactly how we’re going to keep it, you and I. 😉

To 10! It’s been a whopper of a journey. See you next week for Truesday Tales?

Bear hugs and neon confetti,

Still in Pyjamas

 

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.

~

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.

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.

 

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.

~

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.