The Seed of a Mango – Food Memories on Father’s Day

The seed of a mango is often the center of a conflict, at least when Indian children are involved.  My father, the family bully and later beloved patriarch of the clan, routinely won the battle over who got to suck out the juicy bits of a mango seed, leaving his 6 brothers and sisters crying and cursing.  A childhood of poverty forced sharing, or winning, at every meal.  When Papa emigrated to the US and his fortunes changed, he went from social Darwinist to generous benefactor. Able to afford cases of mangoes, he offered them to anyone who crossed his threshold.  There were the fruits themselves, mango lassi, mango rus, and mango pickle.  Summer meant sticky fingers and sweetness.

San Cristobal de las Casas. Municipal Market: Mango vendors
Photo by Wolfgang Sauber

Chicago in the 1970s was not the international food haven it has now become, so mangoes were not available at the average grocery store.  Finding Indian mangoes was impossible because of trade restrictions.  Mexico was the exporter of choice.  Having a medical clinic in the Mexican barrio, Papa was happy to barter medical attention for mangoes by the case.  He would take orders over the weekend from all his friends, and visit the mercado on Monday to fill his trunk.   My brother spent his summer unloading 15-20 cases a week from Papa’s car.  When friends would come pick up their orders, of course my mother insisted they stop for chai, and eat one or two of our bounty sprinkled with cumin powder and salt before they left.

Papa made sure we could eat our fill at every meal.  I’m convinced he believed that part of the ‘giving my children a better life’ move from India included mango prosperity.  I grew up without sibling combat over seeds.  If my brother and I both wanted to suck the center, we just grabbed one for ourselves.   We watched Papa eat all the cut up pieces of mango, only eating the seed at the end.  Seeds were never the appetizer, always dessert.  We learned the proper technique for getting maximum pulp without it sliding out of our fingers and plopping on the floor.  Good times.

I lost my father seven years ago, almost to the day.   On Father’s Day this past Sunday, I called my mother. We acknowledged our loss, happy that we have each other.  For dessert I chose the ripest, plumpest mango I could find.  I devoured the seed, licked every finger, and relished the memories.


Chickpea Flour Recipes You’ll Want to Spread Around

For me, the nutty scent of chickpea flour is inextricably linked to a bathtub. No, you have not accidently found yourself reading some kinky sex blog involving naked bodies and food fetishes. The memory is of a nurturing kind, with my mother as masseuse and chickpea flour, turmeric and milk as the healing paste.

Mothers across the Indian subcontinent begin the baby massage ritual as early as 6 weeks of age, combining almond oil and chickpea flour to stretch the baby, soothe the skin, and even remove hair. I can see my six-year-old self irritated and impatient as my mother would make a paste for me to use on my skin after a sunburnt romp at the swimming pool. She’d run the bath, cover me in dough, and scrub. Like so many souvenirs, the annoyance fades, and the love of mother to child shines through.

For me, the nutty scent of chickpea flour is inextricably linked to a bathtub. No, you have not accidently found yourself reading some kinky sex blog involving naked bodies and food fetishes.

Most Indian women use chickpea flour (also known as besan, gram flour and chana dal flour) as a common ingredient in homemade recipes for all manner of beauty regimes. The pursuit of loveliness involves besan, milk, yogurt, rose water, lime juice, almonds and turmeric in various combinations. The recipes are endless, but besan and a liquid are always the base with the other ingredients added depending on the moisture of the skin, freckles, acne, wrinkles, skin lightening, and hair removal.

Skin Cleansing

  • One teaspoon of besan
  • A pinch of turmeric
  • Half teaspoon of honey
  • Half teaspoon of olive oil
  • Mix it well and apply.

Sunburns –

  • One teaspoon besan
  • Two teaspoons yogurt
  • Apply to face and let dry for 30 min
  • Remove with plain water

Skin Whitening One of the more disturbing recipes, but a common one in a fair-skinned obsessed India

  • 2 teaspoons of besan
  • A pinch of turmeric
  • A few drops of lemon juice
  • A few drops of milk
  • Make a paste and apply it on the skin
  • After the paste dries, scrub off

Do you have any yummy beauty recipes in your family? Feel like trying the recipes above? Please share your thoughts with us.

What Kind of Millionaire Are You?

With the obligatory idle banter over, it’s time to start the questions.  The slicing game show music theme cuts the eardrums.  The camera pans in tight.  The contestant fidgets.  The host flashes impossibly white teeth.

Prem Kumar quizzes Jamal Malik:  Who was the star of Zanjeer?

A) Anil Kapoor            C) Amitabh Bachchan

B) Shahrukh Khan      D)Madhur Mittal

Hmmm.  The boy knows the answer without blinking.  Pakka – he’s sure.  But I’m certainly not.  I have come to watch Slumdog Millionaire. I’m thrilled to see a film about ‘my people’, but question one has me doubting whether I am one of them.

Question 2. What motto is inscribed at the base of the national emblem of India?

A) Money alone triumphs      C) Power alone triumphs

B) Justice alone triumphs      D) Truth alone triumphs

Jamal needs a lifeline.  So do I.  Money and power seem crass for a national motto, but how to decide between justice and truth?  I would guess truth – Gandhiji being a lover of it – but guessing is the problem.  I don’t actually know.  And for that matter, I don’t know what the national emblem of India is either.    For Jamal, an uneducated orphan learning millionaire answers on the streets of Mumbai, this answer doesn’t exist in his daily orb.  In the following scene, the police inspector is aghast.  ‘How can you need a lifeline for a question my five-year old daughter could answer?!’  That’s when I know.  A silly game show slaps me in the face with my American roots.  I can’t get past the $200 question on Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Alas, the issue doesn’t end here.  Instantly images of bald eagles on embossed golden circles, ‘In God We Trust’ and ‘E Pluribus Unum’ pop up before me.  I know these answers, but they are relevant to a faraway place.  Not the world of Jamal Malik, or my ancestors.

Then, finally, a question I can answer with musical ease.

5. Whose picture appears on a U.S. $100 bill?

A) Benjamin Franklin        C) Franklin Roosevelt

B) George Washington       D) Abraham Lincoln

No, there aren’t any $100 bills thickening my wallet, but I can sing ‘It’s all about the Benjamins’ with Puff Daddy any day.

What kind of millionaire am I?  So far, an American one.  But game shows are the land of culture and kitsch, not citizenship.  How can I be so deaf to a culture I call my own?  Maybe I’m not.   Returning to the opening question provides a clue, for this is a film about what Indians believe.

As the film begins, we, the audience, are posed a question that feels more like a riddle: Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?

A) He cheated        B) He’s lucky

C) He’s a genius    D) It is written

At the end of the film, the answer is revealed, but any Indian knows to mark D) immediately.  No amount of luck, genius, or trickery can best fate.

The name of the Indian version of the game show points to D) – Kaun Banega Crorepati?  Translation – Who Will Become a Millionaire?  Becoming rather than wanting –  therein lies the difference.  Do you want it badly enough?  It’s a present tense question, in the active voice, and it’s all about your will.  Will you become a millionaire?  It’s in the future, passive, outside of you.  You are not the actor, but the receiver.

Destiny is the true leading lady in the love story of Jamal and Latika, but destiny’s role is not always starring as a uniter of lost love.  From the Western perspective, believing in fate appears a dangerous passivity, and a cruel, ‘you must have done something to deserve this’ karmic moralizing that cuts through the main artery of your will and bleeds you of your resolve.  How many times and in how many voices has my mother repeated, reminded,  scolded, consoled, chastised, revealed, and illustrated to me, in moments mundane and dramatic, ‘It is all written, beta.’  Often with a glance to an open palm, guiding the eye to one of the physical locations of destiny.  Destiny is not esoteric or vague.  She is corporeal, precise, unique.

But the Indian will parry with the counterpoint – what is this infamous will?  What calamities have befallen those who pound on the chest of willful ignorance, not seeing all around as maya – illusion?  This grasping of the ego as real has led to folly upon folly, battle upon battle.  For will and ego are brothers in arms, isolating you from the truth of the stars.

These philosophical differences are starting points rather than arguments to be won or lost.  Knowing the first principles of a people is key to understanding their motivations.   Ultimately I feel at home inside the world of Slumdog Millionaire because I know that Jamal Malik believes in destiny.  Or, more fundamentally, I know what believing in destiny looks like – the verbs and nouns, icons and symbols of that belief.  But what of the other questions?  Where do anthems or wordplays or names of movie stars fit into identity?  Knowing the answer to a game show question is certainly entry to a culture club.  We who have schooled in one world, but dined and prayed in another know only too well how many gaps there are in our dealings with both.  Holes that leave us confused, but also a double-seeing that leaves us more subtle.   I feel the pull of will and the power of destiny.

There is a clunky name for this mixed bag.  Mexican-American, Kenyan-American, Indian-American.  We are a hyphenated breed, a hearty half and half joined by a congealing dash.  Maybe Slumdog Millionaire is right.  It is written that way.

Manjuben Part 2 – The Migration of My People

(Spoiler Alert – Please read part 1 in order to enjoy the story as it unfolds.   The link: Manjuben Part 1)

We left Manjuben’s tale dangling on the phone with a husband as mysterious as she.  After the conversation, I tried to picture scenarios where she would find an African-American husband, but none came to mind.  From the blank in my brain, an axiom emerged – acknowledging false assumptions opens the mind, but doesn’t necessarily fill it with new thoughts.  Dante may know he’s lost in the woods, but Virgil is still needed to guide him out.

Morning brought Rodney and Manjuben to my door.  Rodney was the same shade of brown as both of us.  I politely scanned his facial features for clues.  Did he have typical desi eyes or nose?  Is he Indian-American but only speaks English, or maybe he’s from the South and doesn’t speak Gujarati?    My speculations were denied with one act – before parting, Rodney furtively leaned in and kissed her goodbye in front of me!  Manjuben accepted, looked at me, and looked away.  Rodney = pardesi for sure.  Well, I didn’t have to worry about judgments coming from her corner.  She had enough racy scandal for both of us.

We started with 5 pounds of carrots.  There was washing, peeling and shredding, before I added ghee, milk, sugar, almonds, cardamom and saffron, as the humble orange root boiled into carrot halwa.  Perfunctory inquires about kitchen utensils and the location of the loo over, we settled into the ease of repetitive chores while I turned to politely pointed questions about my mystifying sous-chef.

Geography provided a neutral opening.

“Manjuben, where in Gujarat are you from?  My parents are from small villages outside of Surat.”

“Geetaben, I’m not Gujarati.  I speak Gujarati, and lived there, but my family is actually from Sindh and I grew up in Mombasa.”

With one response, my nosy interest in her married life turned to the migratory patterns of my people over the past century.   First, the bare facts in her words:

“My family is Hindu and lived in Sindh.  During Partition, my grandfather fled to Mombasa for fear of Muslim attacks.   The crossing to India was so dangerous that he decided taking a ship to Kenya was safer.  We left everything behind.  Then in the 70s Idi Amin was threatening to kill all Indians in Uganda.  Similar talk started in Kenya, so my father moved us to Gujarat where we had relatives who settled there from Sindh after Partition.  My husband and I married young, and we had a son.   After sometime, we moved to North Carolina where I lived for 10 years.  We have been following Guru Ramji.  My husband passed away a few years back, and I was alone and working.  A friend suggested I meet someone in our samaj who is also a follower.  Though he is half black, half white, Rodney follows Guruji more than I do.  He’s also completely vegetarian, and wakes up at 4 am everyday to do meditation.”

The timeline presented, whatever does it all mean?  For those of you unfamiliar with the chronicles of the Indian diaspora, we’ll need a map and some history books. Let’s peel the onion, layer by teary layer.

From the blank in my brain, an axiom emerged – acknowledging false assumptions opens the mind, but doesn’t necessarily fill it with new thoughts.  Dante may know he’s lost in the woods, but Virgil is still needed to guide him out.

1.  Partition – The independence of India from British rule in 1947 came with the creation of Pakistan.  The migration and subsequent slaughter of almost one million Muslims and Hindus is called Partition.  It was the largest migration of people in history.  The ongoing battle over Kashmir has its origins in 1947 as well.

2.  In 1972, Uganda’s dicator Idi Amin began a campaign to rid the country of all claiming Indian descent.  Thousands were airlifted in the middle of the night to Canada and the UK for fear of rape and beheading.  The anti-Indian sentiment was spreading to other countries in East Africa and many who had settled in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa decided to leave for the West or return to India, and particularly to Gujarat.

3.  In the late 1960s American immigration policy toward India dramatically shifted.  With a shortage of doctors and engineers, skilled India workers were invited to the US and given immediate green card status.  Those immigrants in turn quickly became citizens, usually in 5-7 years, and were allowed to invite family members to immigrate as well.  This is the story of my parents.

But today’s story was about Rodney.  So let’s return.  In coming weeks, I will share more about Partition, Africa, Hindu-Muslim hatred and the Indian brain-drain to the West.

It seems for Manjuben that death had created an opening, which began for Rodney as an entering.  I don’t know what life events brought a mixed race American man to follow a Hindu guru.  But what appeared incongruous to me the night before quickly aligned to the tenants of two people’s core belief and practices.  Believing is one thing, but life is about the daily acts that express our ideas.  Their religious faith meant they acted the same – meditation, vegetarian meals, socio-economic parity.   As she shared more about her daily life and duties to her husband, many of my assumptions proved spot on.  She felt the same sense of duty toward her husband as any woman in my family.  She cooked the food she knew, minus the burning heat, and he happily ate it.  He liked his tea at 6 pm sharp when he walked in the door.  She was sure to have it ready for him.

Believing is one thing, but life is about the daily acts that express our ideas.

They both had grown children, and somehow their life seemed to work pleasantly.  More so than my single existence.  She does suffer from diabetes and showed off her encyclopedic knowledge of prices and shops.  She advised me on where to buy carrots and bell peppers, and gently suggested a new way to wash cilantro and ferment dhokla.  Manjuben had a Bollywood story, but her essential nature was still like millions of Indian women.

And for all the virtual voyages she took to describe her origins, it took her all of 20 minutes in my kitchen to ask about my marital status.  Familiar indeed.

Manjuben or ‘How Assumptions Make an Arse Out of You and Me’

‘Her name is Manjuben.  She caters and helps in the kitchen,’ said Samirbhai, the proprietor of my local Indian market.  My people being a famously entrepreneurial lot, I all but expected the owner to be Gujarati, and that he would in turn have the name of a Gujarati sous-chef for hire to assist with HUSH prep.

I promptly called Manjuben, addressing her in my native tongue.  Her accent wasn’t a rough Surati slang like that of my family, rather something softer, kinder, unlike anyone from south Gujarat.  I assumed she hailed from the northern part of the state, where people ‘shush’ their ‘s’ and generally display manners foreign to Surati lovers of profanity that could make Tony Soprano blush.

She responded eagerly, first talking of the cost of a rotli order, then marketing her skills with appetizers and sweets.  I explained that I wasn’t looking for a caterer, but a helper in my home.  ‘Home’ being in the heart of DC meant hours of negotiations over several days to convince her that the big, bad city was worth entering.   I tried explaining the metro to her, promising to pick her up at the station and calling her to check up.  Like so many immigrants, she lived sequestered in her suburban apartment, venturing out to the market, temple and work, but never leaving the security of her known paths.  Entering the city by herself on public transport was almost as daring as traveling to another continent.

The metro option wasn’t selling.  Next came driving.  She had a car, but had never driven to the city by herself, only felt comfortable driving in daylight, and needed to be home before her husband returned from work.  She needn’t have explained any of this to me, since from the words Kem cho (‘How are you’ in Gujarati) I knew this woman as well as I knew my own aunts.  The easy familiarity lay in the assumption that Manjuben had the same ideas, struggles, and motives for emigrating as everyone I was raised with.  Like my father’s sister and two of my mother’s sisters, the story doubtless went something like this:

She and her husband were hard working, but not highly educated.  Maybe the equivalent of a high school degree, at most a community college level education.  Her English was hesitant, limited and grammatically incorrect (though I had yet to speak a word of English to her).  She probably left India later in life, mid 40s or so, in hopes of improving her lot and educating her children.  She was shamelessly cheap, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the price of everything from milk to okra to underwear at dozens of shops.  She disliked the US, distrusted Americans, espoused openly racist tendencies untempered by direct experience, especially toward African-Americans, and spent most of her time ignoring American life, watching Zee TV, TV Asia and other Indian satellite TV channels, and suffered from various ailments such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

“I knew this woman as well as I knew my own aunts.  The easy familiarity lay in the assumption that Manjuben had the same ideas, struggles, and motives for emigrating as everyone I was raised with.”

Though I found such a resume tedious in its predictability, it was a resume I could manage with little effort.  The racism was intolerable, but best avoided lest we come to a heated debate amidst sharp knives.  The rest was the comforts of home.  We would work away the day in humdrum chatter involving recipes, gossip, and suitable boys.

Nonetheless, I was nervous at the prospect of sharing hours in the kitchen with a woman who would surely be full of passive-aggressive judgments about my life and lifestyle.  The single city life, absence of husband or child at my age, my vagabond career change from respectable World Bank consultant to aspiring (read: broke) writer and underground cook.  I had enough of these furtive jabs from scores of relatives and dreaded the prospect of a day trapped with more.   But cooking a 5-course meal from scratch for 30 people alone was unthinkable, so Manjuben would have to be tolerated.

“My love life looks like a United Nations minefield of multinational heartbreak.”

All that remained to secure her morning arrival was driving directions.  She passed the phone to her husband for the final arrangements as I prepared to talk to some variation on the theme of Gujarati uncle.  So imagine my astonishment when a man speaking with a slightly southern American drawl, who sounded decidedly black, answered in English to my Gujarati pleasantries.  If filmed, the sound effect would have been the scratching of a vinyl record on a turntable.   He introduced himself as Rodney as I tried to cover and switch to English without dropping the phone.

Dear Reader, let me be clear.  I have not a single issue with the mysterious Manjuben married to a pardesi (foreigner).  Neither is there the slightest problem with an American spouse of any color.  (My love life looks like a United Nations minefield of multinational heartbreak.)  The shock came from the how and why, not the whom.  How could a woman with a back story anything like the one I outlined meet, much less marry, an African-American from the South?  In what alternative universe would they come to converse, date, and fondle?!   And how many of my smug assumptions were now just so much ignorant profiling on my part?  It was beyond the beyonds, and made the wait for the coming morning lengthy and spiced with intrigue.

So, what happened?  In keeping with the telenovella style of her life, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the conclusion.  This much I will say – what began as the most familiar of conversations, morphed into a history lesson of 20th century Indian migration as told by one woman peeling carrots.

Join HUSH tomorrow for more.

Where are you from? What’s your story?

“Where are you from?” A persistent question asked of most accented or vaguely foreign looking inhabitants of the US.  Most answer obediently with Argentina or Ghana or, “my parents are from Sri Lanka.”  But there is the occasional impertinent reply.  An Egyptian-American with deep black sockets for eyes and olive skin responding, “I’m from Detroit” leaves the interlocutor thwarted and a bit frustrated.   “You know what I mean.  Where are you originally from?” or some variant, and then another parry, and yet another inquiry about her parents or her name or her gorgeous eyes.

The problem lies with the question.  What’s really being asked is, “What’s your story?”  The answer isn’t Detroit.  But nor would Egypt be a satisfying response.  We’re looking for stories to connect what we see and hear to what we don’t know about a new acquaintance.  My standard answer is, “The skin is from India.  The accent is from Chicago.”  That’s at least an opener.  But India and Chicago aren’t yet stories.  They are place markers.  They say nothing of the sugarcane fields of my parents’ youth, or the pilgrimages to Palitana, a Jain temple on a mountain in the dust of Saurashtra, or the mill in my mother’s basement where she grinds her own dal and rice to make dhoklas.

HUSH is about storytellers and their stories.  Join us every Tuesday for a new tale.  Next Tuesday, we will begin at the beginning.  Namely, the state of Gujarat and the story of a shepherd turned child prince willing to try anything put on his thali (plate).