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.


You Talking To Me, Sonali? (an authenticity in diversity a-ha moment)

I recently finished revising The Bollywood Bride and as usual my beta readers were pure gold. It’s amazing what you don’t see about your own writing and your own story when you’ve been buried in it for months, for sixteen hours a day. Having a good support system of talented critical eyes can help you not just fix and polish your story but it can also zero in on patterns and style, both good and bad and help you fix or hone them.

This time around I had a beta reader notice something I had never myself heard in my own writing before. She noticed that my characters use each other’s names in conversation, a lot. Is that an Indian thing? she asked. Because if it is leave it in. It had just jumped out at her and she pointed it out. Which was fantastic because it got me thinking.

I ran a search through my manuscript and with some deft highlighting I realized that she was right. My characters did address each other by name a lot. So, of course I read a few more stories about Indian characters written by Indian authors and yes, <dear reader> (insert your name here), the characters in these books also did use each other’s names a lot. Especially, when emotions were flying high.

For instance, “Why are you looking at me like that, Samir?” or “What was I supposed to do, Ria, go back to my life as though nothing happened?”

Then I started thinking of my favorite romantic lines in non-Indian literature/films.

In As Good As it gets, Melvin says, “You make me want to be a better man” if he were Indian would he say, “You make me want to be a better man, Carol!”

Yes, yes, I do believe he would.

And where Jack says, “I wish I knew how to quit you!” in Brokeback Mountian, no fullblooded Bollywood star would ever leave out the ‘Ennis.’

“I wish I knew how to quit you, Ennis!” There. That helps me breathe.

On the other had, when I went back to all the most famous lines form Hindi films, guess what I found? They include the addressee. In DDLJ when Raj says “bade bade deshon mein choti choti batein hoti rehti hain” (In the biggest nations across the world, little things like this happen) he prefaces it with a “Senorita” which is what he teasingly calls Simran. So not just “These things happen” but “Senorita, these things happen.” (and if you’re going. Yes! that sounds so much better, Sonali! Then chances are you’re Indian).

And it’s not just romantic lines either. All the best non-romance based Bollywood lines came with an addressee attached too. When Gabbar Singh, possibly the most legendary villain in the history of Hindi films, asks his underling, “Kitne aadmi the?” (How many men did it take to make you run away with your tail between your legs?) He starts it with “Aare O, Samba” and the address itself is its own legend in the fandom.

And then there’s that other line from Sholay, arguably the best line in a Hindi film ever, “Tumhara naam kya hai, Basanti?” (What is your name, Basanti?). But that line is an entire blog post all by itself. (humor, plot, character-building, voice, all achieved to perfection in one fell swoop) But I digress.

The point here is that despite the fact that I detest stereotypes, I do admit that communities and cultures speak a certain way and often we don’t even notice it ourselves. I’ve started noticing how I speak to people and, yes, dear reader, I name names. A lot. What I loved about this one was the subtlety of it. It’s a tool, I realized. When I use names, it’s an emotional punctuation. As a character it says things about me. In conversation, sometimes it’s a caress, sometimes a slur and sometimes an attempt to shake the person I’m talking to in sheer frustration. And knowing this helps not just with staying true to my character’s culture but to my character herself. In knowing that if a character doesn’t match up to this norm, she is different and exploring why she is different and why it manifests in this particular way in her conversation.

It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that as a writer, eavesdropping on conversations between the communities you’re writing helps authenticity. And not just culturally differentiated communities but those based on profession, age, social class. It’s what they teach you in Dialog 101. But I think knowing not just how characters speak but why they speak the way they speak is what could really make things more interesting and yes, authentic.

Coming back to my revision, I did go back and examine each one of those names I had highlighted in dialog, and I tried to only keep the ones that served a purpose whether it was voice or emotion. But I definitely felt like I had learned something new.