Food, Love and Memories of Eid

I’m going to be that person who says “my BFF in middle school was muslim” – but this post isn’t about extrapolating one person to a culture. It is, naturally, about food.

This friend lived in an old muslim neighborhood in Mumbai, right by a mosque in a crumbling timber building with china mosaic floors and carved cathedral ceilings, in a lane crammed with food shops that doused her home perpetually in fresh smells of kabab’s, yeasty naan, and syrupy gulab jamun. Her grandfather, Nanajaan, sat in a teakwood and wicker easy chair in the main hall, a brass spittoon by his side, his silver beard and kohl lined eyes intimidating enough to curb our giggles as we tried to sneak past without waking him as he dozed.

Every Eid, when we visited, he stopped us in our tracks and in his gravelly stern-kind voice wished us Eid Mubarak and stuck a ten rupee note in our hands as “eidee.” Naturally, we learned to appreciate the fact that Eid did not happen only once a year. Then he called to his daughters-in-law – “Make sure the children are fed.”

And fed we were. A feast of lamb biryani with apricots and almonds, beef kababs, and kofta currys so rich we had to crawl to the desserts – saffron sprinkled vermicelli pudding, nutty date cakes, and flaky fried dough dunked in every manner of sugar.

There’s a happiness in that kind of fullness, a joy in that kind of festivity, a peace in the food coma that follows. A wonderful sense of being pampered and belonging when a friend’s mother forces that last jalebi on your plate and you think you’re gong to explode, but you don’t care. You can’t in the face of that perfect crunch of a jalebi before it melts on your tongue and turns every inch of you into your tastebuds.

Anytime I hear Eid mentioned, I miss that old house, that old grandfather, my friend, her gorgeous mother. I’ve lost them to time. But the embrace of their love and the joy of sharing in their celebrations lives on untainted in my cravings for those flavors and for that unique heart-over-belly fullness.

Eid Mubarak to all who celebrate. But to all those who do and don’t, may you find yourself some biryani and vermicelli pudding. And I mean that in the most metaphorical sense.


Of Things Lost (Or Is It Gained?)

There are those who love new things, fresh, untouched things. I am a keeper of old things. Fraying edges, yellowing paper, threadbare fabric. The speaking eyes of black and white pictures do things to me I could never explain. If I lived inside a paranormal novel, I would be the person ancient things spoke to. It probably comes from growing up under the influence of my two herculean grandmothers (because really, calling them just ‘strong’ is an insult) and their ‘packs.’ Both my grandmothers came with a jangle of sisters. A cackling heckling bunch of women with candor and wisdom, and wit so sharp they could slice you in half before you looked away from that deceptively innocuous gaze twice-magnified in their bespectacled eyes.

Imagine afternoons spent nuzzled against the softest cotton saris, wrapped up in that talcum-powder scent of aging sweetness, on time-hardened mattresses laid end-to-end on a cement floor. And hearing them spin tales laced with so much larceny, such intrigue—love lost, honor forsaken, friendship, devotion, betrayal. During those long gazali- or gossip-sessions, they stripped bare family secrets with relish, drawing new blood even as they soothed old wounds with the balm of hindsight honed to a thing of power with all that telling and retelling.

None of the stories were made up. Embellished yes, thickly colored with point-of-view, laden with so much unbending opinion, but never made up. Always real life. They called those sessions gazali. A word sprung from the sandy soil of Malwan, a tiny town nestled along the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. It is a word that defies translation, not just the way all languages do, but because it is such a definer of the place it comes from that it is difficult to grasp it without knowing the people it describes.  Those gazalis, weren’t just gossip (although they were that in huge measure) they were a sharing of lives, a transference of news and heritage, of analysis, of understanding the very essence of communication, of action, of life itself.

It wasn’t about the fact that my unmarried cousin Alka had a long standing affair with the much married town lawyer. It was about Alka’s parents. About her lack of a strong father figure, her mother’s abandonment. It was about all the different ways she could have satisfied her loss, her craving. About all the ways her story could’ve unfolded, not just about the story that actually did play out. I heard that story repeated, over and over again. Spanning summers, years, decades. Every aspect of how things could have turned out for her, every possibility explored, every fork in her path traversed and tested. Every aspect of every choice she made weighed against circumstance, every possible circumstance itself, sliced and diced, plotted and graphed with the skill CNN panels can only aspire to. Alka took on, in turns, the role of a home-breaking vamp, a long-suffering heroine. A diva, a devi, a victim, a dud.

Just as GanguAji was no mere ninety year-old spinster. She was a woman, who in her unforgiving youth had dared to love across chasms of not just cast but religion, a crime punishable in her time by rioting herds burning down entire villages, and she had paid for it with a life of loneliness. Was it heroic? Poetic? Or just plain mad. Had she wasted her life, or had she found a way to live life the only way it deserves living—on her terms, unapologetically?

Their stories captured me in a way not even the books I buried my nose in did. I hungered for their stories, their pre-siesta smells, the worn leathery feel of the hands that patted my forehead, even as their lips taught me to opine, to differ, to search for truth, to gouge out masks, and to never pander to pacify.

My grandparent’s house in Pune with its forgiving shade, its unembellished sensibility, will always be in essence that gazali-filled room with ten old women, who taught me how to be a woman, and wrapped my childhood is a rich miasma of where I came from. Rooted me in a way that made even the most painful identity crisis just a story I would tell when I could.

Why today am I overwhelmed with memories of those long gazali afternoons? Because it is the season of buying new things, and of course it reminds me of the old things I’ve lost. I recently found out, that a boxful of my grandparents’ photographs were lost when their home was cleaned out and sold. It has sat on my heart like a weight I can’t seem to throw off. I remember thumbing through those pictures. My great grandmother, the poet, who died of sorrow. The look in her eyes as she gazed at my grandfather, the orphan, who sat atop a wood stool in a lace dress of all things, his face serious even as an infant. My grandmother a new bride. My father in his fighter pilot’s uniform. Pride only a young hot-blooded warrior can cage in his eyes captured in that frame. For me. Because I would never see that young man until time tempered that fire to the softer glow of wisdom and warmth. My father’s siblings together, smiling, bonded, before the complicated lives we live stuck thorns in those bonds and then pried them slowly apart.

I yearn for those pictures. Yearn to show those people to my children, whose gen-Y brains can’t even process pictures without color. I want them to know what it felt like to be in thatgazali-filled room. It is the voices in that room, those oiled gray braids on hand-embroidered pillowcases imprinted inside me that make the loss of those pictures bearable. I know there’s an irony in there somewhere but I can’t quite crystallize it into words. The loss of things that I want to remember is made bearable by my memories.

I love looking at my grandmother’s pictures, but what I love more is that she let me sit in her lap and play with the flapping wrinkled flesh that hung from her arm. I molded it, poked at it, made it swing like swishing putty. I know what it felt like beneath my fingers, against my cheek. And no matter how many boxes of heirlooms disappear, that I will never forget.