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Posts from the ‘Essays’ Category

Cowboys and Indians

Nathaniel Wander

Cross-Cultural Contrasts in Costumery and Weather perception

Grandmother Chatterjee was the guest of honor.  She was dressed in a sparkling white dhoti, normally the traditional lower garment of a male, but very like her everyday plain-white widow’s sari.  Her hair was freshly washed and combed, her forehead decorated with sandalwood paste.  Her cheeks glistened with ghee, the soles of her feet shone with vermillion.  She was garlanded with leis of waxy-petaled white flowers.  We were escorting her to Tribeni—the confluence of three rivers: holy Ganga and Saraswati and the purely imaginary Lakshmi—where she was to be burnt.

My initiation into death in Bengal and its rituals

I’d been living in the five-thousand-person West Bengal village of Shonapalashi for almost six weeks when I was called to Grandmother Chatterjee’s house on 17 January 1977, to photograph her body surrounded by her large and sorrowful family.  I had gotten myself into a world of bother with photography when I first arrived in the village: for two days, visitors lined up in front of my house, pressing and jostling to have their pictures taken, especially with the Polaroid that shot out developed photos almost as soon as they were snapped—they had never seen such a thing.  I didn’t know a polite way to say “No”: there really wasn’t one, but as I learned, my visitors were being extremely rude by Bengali standards anyway.  When Bikas Chatterjee told me that most of the photo-seekers weren’t even from Palashi village, I closed up shop.  My stock of Polaroid film was limited and not easily replaceable; it was intended to create thank-you gifts for people helping with my research.

Bikas Chatterjee—Grandmother Chatterjee’s late husband was Bikas’ paternal grandfather’s brother—was a twenty-year old university student with a thin mustache and a twinkle in his eye even when he was trying to look serious.  We had started becoming friends almost from the day I’d arrived in the village.  His parents had been so kind and welcoming, I was happy to be of service to them.  Sristidhar-da, a high school teacher, spoke English far better than I would ever speak Bengali, so that was the language we usually conversed in, but when his wife Nirmala-ma joined us on their verandah, she would adjure: “Apnara bangla-kota bolun,” ‘Speak Bengali, you guys.’  Having come to Bengal almost directly from five months in Peru—I was still being treated for Amazonian amoebas as I began hosting Gangetic ones—I was pleasantly surprised by a woman behaving so assertively.

Preparing Grandmother Chatterjee for her journey

When I arrived at the scene, Grandmother Chatterjee was already laid out on the hard-packed earth just outside the walls of her house-yard.  She would have been carried outside before she died—had she died indoors, a wall would have had to be broken to let her spirit out.   She lay on a comforter, her head on a pillow as if asleep, her hands folded upon her breast around her well-worn copy of the Bhagavad Gita.  The Gita is a long religious poem whose preeminent theme is the responsibility of the warrior to oppose evil and defend order.  Hinduism has generalized this to everyone’s responsibility to uphold dharma, to “do the right thing.”

A stake-sided truck parked beside the house, led me to surmise that Grandmother Chatterjee would be driven to the Ganges for cremation.  Visitors are amazed that so polluted a stream can be so holy, but that is precisely Ganga Devi’s trick: she flows down pure from Lord Shiva’s grimy, cremation-ash-smeared dreadlocks as he sits in meditation on Mt. Kailash, and she purifies all she comes in contact with.  Not wishing to impose on the family’s mourning, it was with some diffidence that I asked if I might accompany them to the burning ghat—what an anthropologist’s dream that would be!   No imposition was involved: it was an honor for a sahib to join them and soon I was more participant than observer.

Counting myself, fourteen men accompanied Grandmother Chatterjee to the shamshan ghat ‘cremation grounds’: nine were relatives including my friends Bikas and Anadi Chatterjee; two owed and were owed various ritual obligations by her son, Shantiram-babu, the muk-agni, who would place fire (agni) into the corpse’s mouth (muk); two musicians and singers of kirtanaya, the hymns to Lord Krishna.   The best-known, possibly only kirtan known in the West is, of course, the Hare Krishna.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

Since this was the principal kirtan we sang in the back of the truck—all the more vigorously as it slowed when passing through any inhabited area (in three and a half hours, we traveled thirty-two miles)—I readily joined in.  I knew this ‘chorus’ well enough, though I was hearing the Bengali ‘verses’ for the first time.  The little I could then understand seemed to be addressed to the spirit of the deceased, cautioning her that she was commencing a journey upon which none could go along.  (Back in the village thirteen hours later, we were each instructed to embrace a mango tree representing the spirit of life, requesting it to accompany each of us in our individual aloneness.)  My companions were pleased to hear me join the singing.  I said that I had learned it from the Beatles—I didn’t want to try and explain Allen Ginsberg.

As we finally entered the narrow, crowded streets of Tribeni, the truck driver wanted to take the easier route to the banks of the Saraswati.  This was unthinkable to the funeral party: only the Ganga would do.  I believe this went beyond religious devotion, beyond even concerns for Grandmother Chatterjee’s journey to nirbanan (from which she would either be reborn or released from the need), though both seemed sincere and potent.  The family was of the highest economic as well as ritual statuses; the Chatterjees well understood it was required of them to undertake and be seen to undertake the greatest effort and expense possible.

While this was a serious endeavor for all these reasons, it seemed far from a solemn one.  When not singing kirtanaya or calling “Bol Hari” (‘Say God’) the young men in particular had bantered and teased throughout the journey: even Santiram sometimes joined in.  When we were met by ‘congestion’ at the burning ghat—we needed to wait on the availability of a local purohit —our group went into town to drink tea.  When the older men left us, though,it was whisky not chai we younger men went looking for; we settled for chai. Observation of subsequent funerals convinced me that, if there was anything untoward about this, it was only that they sought to drink spirits before the ceremony. After funerals, Bengalis drank liquor and smoked ganja so freely (well, maybe not Brahmins), I joked that they must have been a lost tribe of Ireland.

When we returned to the beach—a few men had remained behind with the body—a pyre had been constructed and Grandmother Chatterjee’s stretcher laid beside it.  Her body had been uncovered and was being rubbed in ghee.  She was then carried down to the river to be bathed and after, returned to her stretcher. The purohit and Santiram faced each other, kneeling on Grandmother Chatterjee’s right, the priest beside her head, the son at her feet. The priest initiated a series of mantras which Santibabu repeated: he seemed familiar with the formulas, but perhaps not to know them by heart. When I sponsored a Saraswati puja back in the village a week later, I struggled enough to repeat the mantras after the purohit, but there was no getting around it.  Apart from photography, the villagers had seen me constantly engaged in writing and reading—obviously I was a pandit; obviously Saraswati was my patron deity; obviously I felt obliged to honor her.

This pandit identification continued to trouble me through my year in Palashi.  Actual village pandits assumed I spoke Sanskrit as they did and would not be disabused.  We would exchange greetings in Bengali; they would immediately switch to Sanskrit.  Ordinary Begalis, on the other hand, were delighted at learning I spoke their mother tongue … the immediately switched into Hindi.  “Hindi Janina.  Bangla kotha boli,” I would respond.  Another round of delighted Bengali to mark my accomplishment … followed by more Hindi.  If the scholars couldn’t imagine I didn’t speak their language, ordinary Bengalis equally couldn’t imagine I did.

Eventually I concluded that in their experience, if Europeans bothered to learn an Indian language, it was invariably Hindi-Urdu.  The best response I ever had was on a bus returning from Shantinikaten late in my stay.  Approaching Bardhaman, a traveler from Birbhum District asked me for directions in town.  When I answered him, he looked at me puzzledly. “You speak Bengali with an accent,” he observed.  “Where in India are you originally from?”

Before Grandmother Chatterjee’s body could be laid atop the pyre, her son was required to give pinda—a ‘lump’ that Santiram prepared by mashing boiled rice, ghee and til (sesame seed) in a new clay pot. He placed the pinda in the mouth of the corpse, again from the right.

There remained two more significant rituals, employing fire at the outset and water at the close—a dichotomy whose importance to my research I was yet to recognize. Santiram held a bundle of hollow reeds that the purohit set alight.  As muk-agni he circled the pyre three times in a clockwise direction from the right, touching the fiery stalks to the corpse’s mouth and finally setting the pyre alight.  As muk agni followed pinda daan, it gave the impression of being a negative feeding.  The body, I was told, contains five bhut, a word with many overlapping meanings, but best translated here as ‘desire;’ the dead who cannot shed their bhut are in danger of becoming trapped on earth as ghosts. (In the chalit basa or vernacular, bhut also glosses as ‘ghost,’ of which I shall have more to say below.)  Ros ‘juice’—the bhut of taste—resides in the mouth.  Muk agni seemed like a prompt to cease desiring: there’s no more ros for you anymore.

As he’d set the funeral pyre alight, Santibabu also initiated its quenching.  He was sent to the river to fetch water in a clay pot, cracked but not so badly that a finger across the fracture couldn’t suffice to keep the water in.  The old, broken pot seemed to symbolize Grandmother Chatterjee’s broken off life, as well as to contrast with the new pot required for mixing the pinda.  The muk-agni again circled the pyre three times from the right, though now in an anti-clockwise direction, pouring out the water as he went.  Then, beginning with his sons, each of us repeated this action, though only once.  As this hadn’t provided nearly enough water to quench the burning coals, the oldest son made several trips to the river, pouring out water matter-of-factly and without ceremony. Anadi then rolled a few cinders in a ball of river mud, the only remnant of Grandmother Chatterjee actually returned to Ganga devi.

With ritual bathing and clothing change and a stop for tea afterwards, it was 1am before we departed Tribeni, 3am by the time we reached the village.  There we were instructed to hug the mango tree and request its company in our aloneness. Along with the fig, the banyan and the quince, the mango is reckoned to be a Brahmin among trees, though I was later told that any fruiting tree would have sufficed.  We ‘cleansed’ our hands in the smoke of a cow-dung fire, then were offered nim leaves to chew. (Not a fruit tree, but also accounted a Brahmin among trees).  Santiram fed each of us a bit of sweetmeat and some kesari dal seeds and we remained in his courtyard singing kirtanaya until dawn. Just as dawn was breaking, we sang a special kirtan to wake Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, then went to our own well-earned rests. Over the next two weeks, Santiram in particular, would be required to undertake a series of rituals to remove pollution and assist/oblige his mother to continue her journey towards nirbanan.

 

An anthropologist in search of a dissertation

 

I’d come to Palashi Village to investigate population dynamics and their relationship to land use and labor practices; why that project failed is a long and complicated story best told elsewhere.  I reminded myself that I was also a student of the French epistemological anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who had written:

The image a society evolves of the relationship between the living and the dead is, in the final analysis, an attempt, on the level of religious thought, to conceal, embellish or justify the actual relationships which prevail among the living (Triste Tropiques, 1974, p.246).

No doubt this manner of thought had unconsciously colored my interest in the Chatterjee family’s relationship with its dead grandmother.  Could it support me all the way to a dissertation?

In the course of discussing Grandmother Chatterjee’s cremation with my informants, I had acquired contradictory statements that ghosts wanted or didn’t want to leave the world of the living behind.  Most everyone agreed that the paramount function of the cremation fire was to crack the sutures of the skull to release the atma that resided within: the jibatma, life or personal soul and the poramanatma or divine soul.  The disagreement fell between the ‘official’ view that the atma needed to be ‘let out’ and a darker one that they needed to be ‘driven out.’ Anthropology thrives on just such contradictions.

I began collecting stories of ghosts: helpful ghosts, malevolent ghosts, ‘stuck’ ghosts.  Two of the latter dwelled in fields behind the village—that of a woman who went into labor and died in childbirth while travelling in a wagon; that of a man who had been bitten by a snake.  They had died otithi ‘untimely’; anyone who had to pass their way at night spit around himself in all directions to keep the ghosts at bay.

These roads through the fields were ambiguous places, part of the agricultural system, but not themselves cultivated.  The pond-fringing bamboo groves were also equivocal, ghost-haunted spaces, highly polluted by people relieving themselves among the bamboos, but bordering the ponds where they performed holy ablutions. Ghosts also congregated in the area beside a house where the roof thatch overhangs the walls—neither quite in the house nor outside it in Bengali reckoning.  When emptying a washbasin off the veranda, one had to be careful not to splash a ghost. I’d additionally learned that the reason men squatted to urinate was to avoid accidentally wetting and angering a ghost by trapping it in bhuba, a plane eighteen inches above the surface of bhu, the world of the living. Atma ordinarily remained in bhuba approximately two weeks after death until freed/forced by offerings of prasad and the performance other post-funerary rites.

Atma could become entrapped as bhut if splattered with water polluted by passing over or through a living body, while  a dead body had to be consumed by a cremation fire it polluted  to prevent its soul from becoming trapped as a ghost. The dialectic of human bodies living and dead intersected with a fire-water dialectic uniting all beings from the amrita gods to the creatures bound by samsara to repeated births and deaths.

This fire-water dialectic began with the opposition between Shiva—so pure he could live among the ashes of the burning ghat without becoming polluted—and Vishnu, such a master of water he incarnated as a fish.  Ganga devi, the holiest of waters, poured down to earth from the Himalayas by way of the fire god’s matted hair, while the water god was paired with Agni, the incarnation of the holy fire of sacrifice.  Below these in purity and capacity for pollution—but still sacred in their own right—were the domestic hearth fire which transformed agricultural produce into food, and ‘ordinary’ terrestrial water which carried off humans’ pollution.  At the bottom of the hierarchy, polluted and polluting, were the body’s digestive and watery wastes and the fire and ash of the burning ghat.

In fact, I would come to see that this fire and water fandango governed all social relations.  Among the living, it was chiefly expressed via which castes were permitted to accept water and cooked food from which others.  Between the living and the dead, it was expressed via how water polluted by the living might entrap a bhut on its journey through the worlds with the hope of finally escaping samsara, while how the cremation fire with its capacity to pollute the living might assist/impel a bhut to undertake that journey.  The cycle of birth and rebirth united the living and the dead: the fire-water dialectic provided the code for thinking, speaking and acting with regard to this union.

During the night of Grandmother Chatterjee’s cremation, Santibabu had asked me nearly as many questions about funeral practices in my society as I’d asked him about those of Bengal. Such exchanges were typical of my Palashi experience.  It’s often said that anthropologists study a people.  In fact, what we do is to learn from and with them.

Nathaniel Wander has had a career as an ecological anthropologist and public health researcher. Since retiring from the University of Edinburgh in 2011, he turned to studying woodpeckers in Belize and began writing a personal/professional memoir titled: You Are Here—X: Tales from the Evolution of an Anthropologist. “Cowboys and Indians” will be the sixth chapter of that manuscript to be published.

On Friendship and Writing

Varsha Tiwary

Maybe writing is its own desert, its own wilderness

-Rebecca Solnit

I begin with a quote. Such comfort in the solid, clear, ringing conviction of words written by a beloved writer! A conviction which for long eluded me. My words lurked in secret diaries stuffed in back drawers. Like over-ripe fruit, they felt sticky with putrid emotion. Censoring myself till I no longer knew what I thought of anything, was a habit.

I am a woman who followed the permissible dream of getting a secure, well-paying Government job. I accepted the going middle class wisdom that a joyful love for literature could only be a hobby, to be cultivated like a shallow and attractive bonsai, not a vocation. At workplace, I wore a mask of weighty authoritative propriety over my stiffly starched saree and tried very hard to find meaning in heads of accounts; belief in balance sheets.

That I needed to find the strength to own the words that crowded inside my head; never even occurred to me. In my cloak of pleasing niceness, yearnings had meager space. Amidst people, it was a habit to shrug off my words as soon as they dared to hover on my tongue. Why bother? Who needs one more opinion?

This, then is the story of going across that mountain of self-doubt, hand in hand with a friend.

###

In two decades of adult life, I had not made any real friends. I had shed tons of old friends, as lives and pursuits took them across continents and our interactions turned formal for lack of context. I had stopped expecting depth in friendships at my workplace, despite the fact that I spent most of my active hours there.

My workplace seethes with perfectionism. The crackling competitiveness coating the smiling politesse, the subtle undermining beneath the gratuitous friendliness, the trick of reining a competitor’s enthusiasm with lofty circumspection, the fine art of listening with rapt reverence, the boss’s tales of victorious campaigns in the battlefields of bureaucracy. Never registering dissonance. Never minding, never showing hurt when my work was appropriated or disregarded and rubbished. I focused only on doing – on being the perfect Bureauyogi. Bombarded on all sides with ambition and accomplishment, my sense of inadequacy was as well entrenched as it was hidden. An athlete on ephedrine, I felt a fraud, but ran the race.

At home I tried to be a good mother, a good cook, a good wife. A façade of busy cheer for outsiders and aloofness from family was my armor. In pursuit of these many impossible ambitions, nagging and raging became a part of me. Any real injustice, imagined slight, or buried hurt could set me off. Punishing workouts in the gym helped for a while by erasing all thought. At my age, I could conveniently ascribe my cussedness to peri-menopause, that universal handy label for everything. When the blackness refused to retreat, I sought escape. From office, from my family, from the mad metropolis. I registered for a trek to the Sikkim Himalayas.

I had known her only as a colleague, far too senior to be a friend. A mutual acquaintance heard her talk of trekking and threw my name, as I too trekked. When she called and proposed going together, I was hesitant. Having another woman to walk with me would be awesome, but the prospect of going with a service senior was not a pleasant one. Would I be required to maintain professional hierarchy amidst unpredictable vagaries of a trek? What if she expected that pecking order be maintained while taking the morning dump? I gave a lukewarm assent and maintained a guarded distance, hoping that she would change plans. The trek was six months away.

My need to get away, must have been stronger than my reserve, for we did go on the trek together. We discovered reciprocal obsessions animating us.  Over long arduous walks through snow bound passes and uncomfortable huddles in tiny tents; singing silly songs to ward off fatigue, I discovered a friend. A woman whose uproarious sense of humor swept all hierarchies away.  Besides love for trekking, we shared a love of reading. Reading, not the show-off books du jour or the pretentious tomes, but books that told stories, books that spoke of stuff so visceral and close to you that you could not discuss it with anyone, except your best friend. And then only to say, look we were not so wrong when we felt the same way.

She too indulged in the guilty, secret pursuit of writing about her feelings, anxieties and confusions. In our early days, we both thought that this was a very frivolous, inconsequential detail  to share. We had for so many reasons, for so long allowed the world to push us into concealing our real voices. When we retrieved our voices we could not stop talking. When the thoughts of one received validation from the other, they frothed over like milk set to boil.

###

Late at night, I lie reading in bed. Vehicles thunder on the flyover beyond.  Occasionally the glass windows, vibrate to the frequency of a passing motorbike. This dance of two relatively inert, far removed objects to some unknown force that they themselves were unaware of, is a thing of great excitement for my son. Who knows why or how frequencies match?

That afternoon I had texted my friend that I needed to have an urgent lunchtime chat. It was a busy day for her, bursting with important things to do. The phone rang regardless. Without any small talk I told her I needed to share a Chekovian pearl. ‘I know you are busy, but call whenever you take a break.’

‘I demand that pearl right now,’ she said.

We spoke about Chekov’s story ‘Easter Eve,’ I had discovered a day before. Easter had been her favorite festival as a child.

I was in awe at the way the old genius had described the night. The boat ride on dark waters towards the pealing bells, the fireworks shattering against the darkness. The melee, the press of people and horses amidst shadows wavering in the crimson light from tar barrels outside the church. The tar smoke, the smell of incense and juniper, the atmosphere of childish, irresponsible joy, the lighthearted singing.

She spontaneously recalled the Easter services of her Syrian- Christian childhood in seventies Delhi and sent me a link to a Easter service song in Malayalam that spoke to me with breathtaking beauty, even though I did not understand a single syllable. Post our chat, she had attended tedious office meetings with a smile, reading whatsapp excerpts of  ‘Easter Eve’ on her phone, between pauses in jargon riddled official discourse.

Other days, she would text me, something. Babel: ‘the moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring,’ and send me on a wow trip. If we were lovers, Chekov could have been the cupid. Had we been starving our conversations were like life-saving victuals. Who knows how frequencies sing together?  As an adult, the metaphysics of it still fills me with a quiet wonder.

###

Reading was an indulgence, a guilty pleasure, before she came in my life. It graduated to a soul searching, soaring, searing endeavor only when we began mentally holding hands as we read. In the flurry of emails that flew daily between us, we effortlessly slipped from reading to writing. I never felt as close to her as when she first hesitatingly shared her writing with me. It started a chain. She wrote. I wrote back. The feeling of being heard, the act of being witness, coalesced all the vague, unspeakable emotions into some shape.

Together, we pursued writing as a cannibalistic act. Taking in everything and everyone; what people say and do to each other; tearing them apart. Watching, recording, remembering everywhere. In long Board meetings and in closed conference halls, in drawing rooms and dinner tables, from vaults of buried memories and  the brightly lit, open shelves of now. We put it all down, without feeling any need to be pretty or good or even grammatical. We fed our souls on the raw meat of our killings. That we could read and hear and talk to each other about what we wrote was all that mattered. Through writing we exhausted old resentments and slights, found new ones, honored our emotions. We dug our journals and put name tags on our confusions and anxieties, only to understand how little sense they made. Over time we could look at all the nasty stuff in the eye and laugh over it.

Conversations with her cut through my natural diffidence, like a ray of sunshine. Free from fear of being laughed at or judged, we shed the moulting of  life-sucking posturing that had gripped us. We tapped into the energy of the other and found meaning in our life experiences. In the convivial shade of our shared humanity, our roles as mothers, daughters, wives and work women could be flung aside to explore our individual femaleness, our particular memories of growing up female in a culturally plural, at once religious and secular seventies India.

###

Two years ago, writing even one un-self-conscious, honest sentence was impossible for me. What came out of me was preachy, pretentious and clever. All my writing focused on complicated plotting and scintillating descriptions. It lacked both self and soul.

If writing is an act of self-acceptance then no technique helped me tap my inner writer, than the quiet, reassuring knowledge that just a phone call away, another beautiful, intelligent, completely sane and poised woman felt just as insane and messy inside as I did. That  there was no shame in it. That all the stuff stowed away in the attic cupboards of our consciousness was not junk but precious raw material.

The writer’s instinct is fragile, like a bug. Often to survive, it must grow an exoskeleton. And still it is prone to getting crushed just like that. The world offers no medals for feeling deeply, for getting moved by the written word, for actually daring to put words down on paper. The world is forever ready to misunderstand. I managed to crawl from under the rock because I found another bug there. Only antennae vibrating likewise, gave me the resonance to surge forth. The desire to write had been a furtive camouflaged part of my self  for long. Even those who knew me very well, never really knew how much it meant to me. Denial and deflection go extremely well with an undercover act like writing.

In the Real World of office goers who make power-points and write jargon addled project report, markers and signposts and results are everything. Even baking exotic cakes,filing news reports and doing laundry is concrete. The world seeks, thrives on and understands tasks where the results speak for themselves. For writers of journals, scribblers of poems and those who constantly crumple up blackened paper to fill dustbins, the only validation stems from a stubborn self- belief or a kindred spirit affirming all their half formed ideas.

“Oh so you write, where is the book?”

“Oh so you write, nice hobby!”

“Oh so you write, even I write; financial reports, drafts, research paper, blogs”… and so on.

Creative writing then, seems a decadent act of extreme selfishness, something people who do not have serious, regular work to do would do. When you don’t even have  a book to show for it, it is something only people who want arty, pretentious hobbies would do. Poseurs, who desperate to be in thick of things (which they clearly not are), would do to look as if.

It was impossible to even own up to the hubris of writing, when I was constantly self-censoring, thinking how others would react and strangulating the very instinct that makes a person write. My biggest problem was the doubt that I cultivated inside me, keeping it rich and green, irrigating it with manure of disbelief of those around me, by being apologetic, by making excuses, telling lies

Without the elixir of honest talk, the gift of a friend, without a hand to hold while traversing the wilderness of the written word, I would honestly not know how to shape anything into honest prose.

Varsha Tiwary has published short stories, memoirs and essays in DNA-Out Of Print short fiction shortlist, 2017; Kitaab; Basil O’Flaherty; Muse India. Her pieces are forthcoming in Gargoyle magazine, Manifest-station and The Wagon. She is currently on sabbatical from her nine to five job and lives in Maryland.

Essays & Interviews

Cowboys and Indians by Nathaniel Wander

Homecoming by Shruti Mungi

On Friendship and Writing by Varsha Tiwary

Homecoming

Shruti Mungi 

The wallpaper on my wall is a musty brown. I watch it till the black lines come alive in my mind like dancing figures that want to run away. I keep wishing to swirl up into the morning sky with them, but the fresh morning air, speckled generously with hot spices, draws me back into the heat of my blanket. I can hear the mixer go off in the kitchen, its rhythmic grinding recreating the taste of cumin seeds and red chilies in my mouth. The heat permeates through my closed bedroom door, beckoning me out with its intensity. My mouth is haunted by the last time it was bombed by this spice mix, bringing back to memory the multiple glasses of water and sweet barfis that I scarfed down in order to quench the fire. I want to resist but the aroma eventually summons me to the kitchen to behold the sight that is my mother’s mutton gravy.

Lazy mornings like this after being home from college are no rarity. I spend hours on end holding on to the fragrances of spicy pickles and right-off-the-stove chapatis that are all complemented by the warmth of my own bed. I like to take it in slowly, breathing in with the house of my childhood but never breathing out. I’m not surprised that the happiness of that embrace never lasts. My bags are packed for the next journey before I can even wallow in the feeling of being home.

Homecoming is not new to me. I have come back home time and again since I was in the fifth grade. It went from coming home from boarding school, to coming home from home schooling then to coming home from college—an endless cycle of feeling like a guest in your own house and always having suitcases to fill and empty. My bed was like a wave that threw me up to the shores of one foreign place after another, a calm ruthlessness purging me out every chance it got.

Food has been the one thing I have used to root me to the places I had to make my home in— a plate of idli-sambar indicative of my adolescent years in boarding school and hearing how I seemed to be getting bigger every time I came back home, a ham and cheese sandwich a reminder of my freshman self in college and eating alone in my room because of my social anxiety. The smell of cumin and chili haunts me into remembering my difficult relationship with food, as does any food at home. Between my increasing weight and my mother’s passionate cooking, I am faced with a contradiction that is hard to come to terms with.

I’m certain I’ll never be thin enough to satisfy my mother. My carelessness with food has always been a cause for concern for her, exacerbated by the fact that I was never home for her to control what I ate. She, on the other hand, has always been enamored with the idea of food. Dust-fleckered recipe books line the several rows of cabinets in our house and recipe cutouts from newspapers hang on the refrigerator. Every other day, I see her make that one recipe that struck out to her while watching a cooking show. I’m sure that’s why some of my fondest memories of my childhood involve devouring her concoctions. What baffled me, as a child, was her expectation for me to lose weight when she cooked such delectable meals. Ultimately, I learnt to associate guilt with food, her temper continually breaking down my self-esteem instead of teaching me moderation. It seemed like we were never on the same page and over the years, I learnt to fill the pit created by my developing social anxiety with food.

    Look at Ria, she’s gone on a diet. We’ll start on one tomorrow too, I hear her say over and over again, alluding to my cousins and friends and whoever else she can find who is thinner than me. I know that she is afraid of weight-related health issues affecting me. Diagnosis of her early onset of arthritis a year ago has scared her into reevaluating her own life choices and forcing restrictions upon mine. I try to believe that she means well but I think I end up failing every time when I remember that, growing up, my self-worth had always been tied up to the thickness of my thighs.

The decision of making mutton evokes the same distaste in her.

“Will you ever listen when I tell you to eat healthier,” she storms at my father repeatedly. “You know how important watching our health is at this age!”

“But Shruti’s here after so long. We have to get some mutton!” He grumbles, brushing her advice off carelessly.

My father wants to give me everything I want when I’m home. We’re always eating out and he’s always ecstatic about bringing home warm plastic containers of chicken gravy and naan from the new place he’s discovered. We have similar tastes, my father and I. But I sense a distance between us, one that has sprung from my absence. One that has sprung from me becoming a woman behind his back.

When I can’t hold back from the aroma anymore, I slink out to the kitchen. The afternoon sun is up and glaring in through the windows, the light proving to be a little too bright for my sleepy eyes. Wordlessly, I ask my mother for a cup of tea. I sink into my spot, a small nook between the fridge and the storage cupboards, to watch my mother work herself down to the bones as I hold the red Nestlé cup in my hand. I notice, as she works, that she has grown older. Her rough hands that pat the marinade into the mutton pieces are labored by too much work and her face is perpetually contorted in pain as she clutches her feet.

I hurriedly finish my tea and stand next to her.

“Do you need any help?” I ask, grabbing the teapot off the stove to rinse it out.

“No, I’m almost done. It’s ok,” she says, sighing into the pressure cooker’s steam. I’m not surprised. She rarely asks me for help.

It bothers me that this is all she has known. She built this house from the roots up, its nooks and crannies no secret to her. It was an immense task, even more so in an aging house. But I think about all that my mother could have been, when she was as old as me, had she not spent her time after her two children, had she been free of these expectations.

Today, I see her paint in bright hues across the bedroom walls and layer large beads upon beads to sit above her collarbones. My brother’s bed is teeming with beads of all sizes hiding in small compartments, jewelry making being my mother’s latest focus and pride. Having done everything she could have for us, I feel at peace knowing she is finally doing what she loves.

“What is this mess on the bed? I can’t even see where my clothes are,” my father says often in humor. It bothers me that his remarks come in jokes and not in proud exclamations for my mother. But it is hard for me to harbor hard feelings towards him, the warm brown of his eyes always assuring me that his jokes are a ruse for him to feel closer to us. I know that his actions will always make up for his words. Every time I think of the problematic nature of his behavior, I am brought back to the feeling of not truly knowing him. My mother, who stood on her feet all day and faced the gas flames, was always in front of me. My father faced all his troubles in his office, behind his closed bedroom door and in his own head, forever unseen to me. It’s a thought that haunts me everyday, making me feel as young and naive as the day I left home in their eyes, as the day I had last fully known them. Perpetually ten.

We finish lunch at three, a spice-laden meal of mutton gravy, pav, onions and barfis. We never sit together of course. I sit in my room, my eyes transfixed to a Netflix show. My father sits at the dining table while my mother continues to make more food as he eats. The dining table does a fine job of collecting objects, holding onto packets and containers until they are put in place. Only two spots lie cleaned out for convenience.

A late lunch doesn’t stop my father from asking for evening tea at four. He shouts for it from the couch, surrounded by an array of newspapers and the blaring sounds of Marathi news shows. Sometimes, he starts reminding my mother as early as five. Almost always, the pot is boiling over with the rich tea leaves before he can say it again. He’s habituated to not making it himself. He is always too tired from work and she is always there before him. It’s the same old story on repeat.

I try to make it to the kitchen before my mother can. I can see her lying on the bed, her legs stretched out to rest for, what I know, feels to her like a second. She sinks into the bed a little more when she sees me grab the pot. I grab the kitchen scissors and head out the kitchen door for a little adventure in the backyard garden.

As soon as I step out, the neighborhood stray cats drop from crevices I didn’t know existed and swarm around my feet. White is the female and she is there perched right next to the door to snap at me for food. Fluffy sits at the door because all he wants is back rubs. I pet them both and head into the backyard, walking with them at my heels. I pass the looming mango tree and the half-dead custard apple tree to halt at the box pit of lemongrass. The pit is where we buried my dog and I think about it every time I walk towards that spot. I’m sure that the lemongrass in my tea holds some remnants of her life, seeing as she loved to munch on lemongrass. It is a thought that is morbid yet comforting.

Leaning into the soil, I cut a few dewy strands of lemongrass and hold them carefully. I am tempted to let the edges do their work, they are sharp enough to cut into my soft skin. But the cats distract me. Fluffy rubs against a pot of dead strawberries, a rarity in this hot Indian climate, as White meddles in the lemongrass. I walk back to the wooden backdoor and quickly slip through the cracks, evading the cats who leap at every step I take.

Back in the kitchen, I cut the lemongrass into pieces and throw it into boiling water. I grab ginger from the fridge and hold the grater above the pot. The falling ginger splashes into the water, cutting through the voice of the news show playing in the hall. I stand still, waiting for the water to boil more and evaporate into a thin mist. The sound from the TV is the only thing holding me down to reality.

I realize, as I stare at the pot, that I am like a ghost in this empty house whose own history is detached from one within these four walls. My own past is tied to different places and yet, there is comfort in this strangeness. I grow dreary about abandoning the house when I think of leaving. I grow dreary at having to leave my parents repeatedly. I reside like a guest day after day, making them a little happy until its time to leave again. But we don’t ever sit down to talk. In passing, there are things said and people hugged but we don’t talk about the time I broke down so hard in college I had to leave for home. Or that time I started suppressing my appetite in college, afraid of the weight I was gaining. I realize that I am a stranger to those I love. I am a stranger to this aging house.

At some point, I am able to snap out of it. I throw in some spoonfuls of sugar into the mix. I’ve never been good at measurements and so the recipe for tea lies memorized in my head. Three spoons of sugar. That’s all.

Before I pour the milk into the pot, my father is at the table looking at me.

“Is it done?” He asks in a manner that contains both humor and pride. I smile dryly at him while he gathers up a bowl of farsan crackers and walks back hurriedly to the couch. He’s always afraid he’ll miss his hourly news recap.

I carefully pour the watery milk into the pot and then about four spoons of tea leaves. The open tea box brings a wave of nostalgia in its fragrance, the smell taking me back to running in the tea fields of Ooty with my friends and getting lost within its perfume vastness till we were invisible. The tea boils over unto itself and the brimming leaves line the top of the pot with bubbles. I pick three cups from the utensil basket, two red and one white. The tea steams my face as I pour it into the cups and I am excited at the thought of hearing how it might compare to that which my mother makes.

“The tea is ready,” I scream into the hall and the bedroom. But I don’t really think anyone hears me. The aging house groans back in silent echoes, the only one who responds to my cries, and I realize how truly alone I am.

Shruti Mungi is a Senior Creative Writing major at Knox College. She comes from Nasik, India. A reader by day and a writer by night, she loves correcting grammar and dabbling in all genres of writing. Shruti has written for her college magazine, Cellar Door, and has recently been published in Red Cedar Review.

The Cab Driver and I

I am not allowed to drive for six months. This presents challenges on many fronts for our family of four: work, school, and all the ferrying required for soccer, volleyball, and piano. Once the vertigo from my head injury has subsided, I’ll be able to take the Route 9 bus straight from my home in West Fresno, California, to the university campus where I teach. But until then, I’m getting to know Fresno’s cab-driving community.

I know the names of both dispatchers of the cab company I call. Desiree, the afternoon dispatcher, will end every sentence with “hon” and wait patiently for you to recall the name of the campus side street on which your department is located. By contrast, the woman who answers the phone in the mornings will be rude, but she will cry if you sound disapproving. I know the names and cab numbers of the drivers, how many children they have, how long they’ve been in Fresno. The tall gentleman who has a forehead overcrowded with lines is Nader. He was an air force pilot in Iran under the Shah, then spent two years in prison awaiting his execution during the Islamic Revolution before being released. A Fresno cabbie for twenty-four years, he tells me proudly that he’s among the few left who can find any street in the city without the crutch of a GPS. The youngest of the drivers, Marwan, may enroll in my composition class next fall. He’s the one whose father-in-law was shot dead by robbers in his grocery store a year after he had moved his family to Fresno. It happened twenty years ago, when Marwan’s wife was three years old.

So many cab rides, but it’s the very first one I keep thinking about. I called for it just a week after my head injury. The cab arrives promptly at twelve thirty to drive me to my one o’clock class. The driver gets out of his seat, walks to my side, and opens the back door for me with old-fashioned chivalry. I’m a bit wobbly after the head trauma but manage to mount my bags and myself onto the high perch of the van—albeit with more heroism than grace.

The driver is a slim, small-framed man, and short by American standards. The silver in his hair stands out against his dark skin. I’m not adept at telling people’s ages, but I estimate that he’s in his sixties. I try to place him ethnically. Though he looks like a fellow South Asian, his accent throws me off.

As the driver negotiates a three-point turn on my street, an exchange begins. “Fresno State—are you a student there or a professor?”

“I’m a professor,” I reply. “I teach English.”

“Ah . . . Where are you from?”

“Pakistan,” I tell him.

The driver freezes in the middle of his three-point turn. He gazes up into his rearview mirror for a better look at me. “You’re from Pakistan, and you teach Americans?” His frown is so concentrated that he looks angry.

“That’s right,” I say, and wonder how long we’ll remain suspended in our three-point turn.

The driver’s face breaks into a beaming smile, the splendor of fireworks—the way my favorite uncle used to smile. It speaks at once of an unabashed paternal pride and of a child’s transparent pleasure in absurdities.

“Where are you from?” I ask him.

“I’m from Yemen,” he says. His eyes are on the road again as we navigate the lunch traffic on Shaw Avenue. He tells me that his son graduated from Fresno State recently and that another one of his children goes there. “Do you have women students who cover their heads in hijab?” he asks.

I nod.

“Well, one of them is my daughter,” he proclaims triumphantly.

The man’s candor disarms me, melting our specificities away in an immigrant-to-immigrant moment. It’s a moment that compresses the mutual stories of our lives—of what we gave up to be here, in America, in Fresno, doing what we do now. In the untold telling, we acknowledge that the road has been a long one, with potholes, dead ends, and detours we could not have foreseen. That while we sometimes look back longingly on the terrain we left behind, we stay put in our new home. And in the mirror of each other’s accomplishments, we are assured that the Dream has not beguiled us.

Then it comes. “You’re Muslim?” he asks.

“I’m from a Muslim family, yes.”

“So you’re Muslim.”

“Well, I’m not religious.”

“What do you mean, you’re not religious? You’re from Pakistan.”

A voice in my head tells me to take the path of least resistance, to forgo the taboo self-revelation in favor of courtesy and deference to an elder. But I live in America. I live in America precisely because I can live here authentically. “I mean that some Pakistanis are believing and practicing Muslims, and others aren’t. I’m not,” I declare.

“What do you mean?” the driver asks again in disbelief. “Islam is important in every aspect of your life! What good is this”—with a sweep of the hand taking in all of America—“if you don’t thank Allah for it?”

Then, “Think about your afterlife!” he pleads in the face of my complacency. This time, his frown is unmistakable. The strain of keeping my head from tipping into a vertigo-friendly angle suddenly becomes too much. Eternity is a dizzying concept.

“The reason I have to take a cab,” I say, stretching each syllable to impress my point upon him, “is that I have a head injury and can’t drive. If you don’t mind, I need quiet.”

He glances at me in the rearview mirror again but doesn’t say anything. I close my eyes and keep them closed the rest of the way.

When we arrive on campus, the cab driver walks over to my side and opens the door for me again. I say thank you and overtip him to compensate for my lack of Islam. He doesn’t crack a smile. I walk toward my classroom as steadily as I can. Next time, I tell myself, I’m holding out for a Sikh cabbie. He’ll know better than to concern himself with a Pakistani’s prospects in the hereafter.

There have been so many cabs since that one, but I’ve never encountered the Yemeni driver again.

Just as well. Who the hell needs a cab ride that binds you with wisps of wistfulness for days afterward?


Samina NajmiSamina Najmi is associate professor of English at California State University, Fresno. She has published widely on race, gender, and war in American literature. In 2011, she discovered the rewards of more personal kinds of writing when she stumbled into a CSU Summer Arts course that taught her to see. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Pilgrimage, The Progressive, Map Literary, Asian American Literary Review, bioStories, and Chautauqua. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Samina was raised in Pakistan and England, and lives with her family in California’s San Joaquin Valley.