Maachér Jhol (Fish Stew)
The smashing of the mustard seeds against the bowl transports you to that sub-basement kitchen of long ago. Your mother grinds spices. Oil sizzles in her pan. Fists of smoke unravel themselves through the damp rooms. You play with your best friend Rachel in the dim hall.
“What’s that weird smell?” she asks.
You sniff, catching whiffs of holüd, cardamom, aniseed.
“What weird smell?” you counter, puzzled.
“Ick, how do you not notice it?” She pretends to gag.
The embarrassment cuts into your bone.
The list of mortifications will grow: your mother’s saris, baba’s belligerent English pronunciation, the Ganesh photos… your parents’ culture mutates into a source of shame, a chasm between who you are and who you wish to be. Even your mother as housewife humiliates you.
“Why can’t she work at a job,” you fret, “like other American moms?”
You want a mother who drives, bakes chocolate chip cookies, dresses in smart pantsuits. You realize your skin, your taste buds, and your kitchen are repugnant to the society you live in. Home feels backwards and uncomfortable. You avoid it and your parents as much as possible.
You hurdle into teenager-ship creating a barrier of contempt between you and ma. She’s not worth listening to. What does she know about strong, modern women? She never leaves the house, alone. Her sphere is domestic, a competence to be despised. There’s more to you than the sewing of buttons and the preparing of dinner. You swear you will never be like her.
In college, you discover the necessity of the very tasks you dodged. Muddling through laundry, vacuuming, and washing dishes, you gripe about a mother who never taught you these skills, a mother who failed to educate you in independence. Brooding over limp pasta, charred egg, or burnt rice, you are bewildered that your dorm mates can concoct japchae, hóngshao, and cháo gà. You wish you had their mothers: tough, wily women who instilled in their daughters how to be loud and proud.
At your first job, you incite curiosity from your white colleagues.
“What’s the best Indian restaurant? What is Diwali? Do you make tikka masala at home? How do you wear a sari? Where can I get one? How do you say ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘please’ in Indian?”
You laugh under the weight of representing an entire country — guilty about your lack of cultural knowledge, angry over their oblivious othering. You decipher that despite eschewing your parents’ heritage, you will always be an encyclopedia of manners in America.
You meet him. He likes you darker, not paler. He indulges your passion for Jane Austen. He praises your work ethic. He doesn’t mind the Shiva lingam garlanded in flowers above your parents’ mantelpiece. He doesn’t object to the odor of asafetida pervading their walls. He pronounces your mother a talented chef. You’re shocked. Can someone exist with whom you are safe to be you? Can someone in this landscape allow your confusion as you navigate between two unfamiliar realms?
When you introduce him to your parents, your mom gasps, “but, he’s not Indian,” then murmurs, “his parents are mere shopkeepers,” as she fries eggplants. Rage and grief mingle with the bégun bhaja. You find it difficult to swallow this complicated recipe.
History progresses. Everyone yogas. The organic grocery store in your neighborhood starts selling mango chutney. Turmeric develops into a fad. You achieve a measure of confidence in your identity. Your culinary repertoire expands from fettuccine Alfredo to flan. Yet, you resist learning any of ma’s dishes. You center your ethnic cravings around tandoor, samosa, naan, aloo gobi — never kitchüri or dal. Those meals still remind you of the childhood shame of being Indian.
You haven’t known your lover long, but you love her painfully. Because of this, you believe fate is punishing you when she reveals she has a malignant stomach tumor. You sit beside her hospital bed watching the machine hooked up to the tube inserted in her throat. You observe her frame shrink under the sheets as the months pass. You bring her home when she pleads to be taken away. You sigh.
“What is it?” she croaks.
“I wish I could do something for you.”
“Make me one of your favorite dishes from your mum,” she requests.
“Ma,” you ask over the phone, “how do you make your mächér jhol?”
“Oh, Want to make îlish? Ok, I’ll tell you,” she replies, excited.
It’s the first time you’ve sought advice from her, shown any interest in her cooking. You brace yourself, knowing she doesn’t have formulas. This will be retold from memory with vague ingredient amounts and uncertain directions.
“Acha…first wash fish steaks, then grind mustard, turmeric, salt, cumin, and coriander…”
“Oh, mmm…chota…a little bit…”
You roll your eyes, already frustrated. “How much is ‘a little bit’, ma?”
“Enough to coat fish.”
“Oh, you’ll know as you’re rubbing.”
“Yeah, but that comes after. What if I haven’t got enough when I grind them?”
“So, grind more.”
“I need numbers, ma…this is my first time and if I don’t use specific quantities how can I know when I’ve got it right?”
“You taste as you go.”
“Fine! I’ll taste it as I go, but can you make a guess?”
“Acha, mmm… okay… two teaspoons… no half tablespoon… no…”
You scribble furiously, attempting to translate her disjointed instructions into a tactical prescription. You interrupt each other, break into a squabble; a simple conversation turns into agony.
“This,” you muse, “is why we don’t speak more often.”
It’s an improvement, however, to the usual awkward pauses: chasms between your islands of comprehension. You feel warm, optimistic. The desire to tell ma about her surges through you.
“These immigrants nowadays,” she announces, having diverted from fish-talk to evening news, “all the wrong sort. No values.”
You congratulate yourself on having held your tongue. “Don’t be stupid. Keep things easy.”
“Eta banachish for someone?” she asks.
“A friend,” you reply.
Now here you are: fillets set upon the cutting board like floppy sponges, spices arranged at attention on the countertop. The galley kitchen looks like you’re prepping for a YouTube video. You’ve propped up your makeshift notes. Your breath comes fast, you’re sweating. The result means more than anything you’ve accomplished before this. What if you haven’t deboned properly? What if you can’t achieve ma’s flavor profile? What if?
“Next time,” you promise, “I’ll thank her for her culinary prowess.”
A drop of perspiration runs off your nose. You begin mashing the mustard seeds.
Atreyee Gupta explores the liminal spaces of nature, culture, and identity. Atreyee writes about travel and its transformative experiences at Bespoke Traveler. Arc Poetry, Blue Cubicle Press, Rigorous, Shanghai Literary Review, and Shooter Lit have published Atreyee’s work.