When the sun hits just right it lightens up a newly minted 16 year old. And mama catches the moment.
I woke up thinking about the passage of time. My youngest will be turning sixteen in 2 days. I read some blogs that I wrote in the month of February in years past around Ryan’s birthday and this one brought a smile to my face. I am so thankful I captured some fleeting moments and some pure innocence of my children’s childhood in this blog post. Send some blessings his way for his birthday. I am a big believer in positive energy.
The trick is to keep expectations at a minimum from your husband and children. And maintain the bar low. I was smart, I did just that. I had the kids make their own lunches for school as soon as they started third grade. I kept a loose eye on what they packed. Since I bought the groceries for our house I knew the extent of junk food that was available to them. They got money once a week to buy food from cafeteria but Sahana disliked the cafeteria food so she ended up packing her own lunch all 5 days. The deal was, I would pack their lunches on the last day of school each year. That one day, when mom packed their lunch was a day of jubilation. They were excited, happy and most importantly, grateful.
Similarly, both of them started doing their own laundry since they were 11 years old. Once in a while, when they were very busy I did their laundry for them, for which, I got many words of gratitude.
I like to cook so I primarily cooked for the family yet I made sure my husband simply did not expect me to cook ALL THE TIME. Till date, he remembers to thank me for the meals I cook. During pandemic, I became more of a purist – using natural oil for moisturizer and hair care, squeezing oranges for fresh orange juice, making rotis and recently making homemade paneer from scratch. Sean was extremely grateful and told his family in video calls that his wife was making homemade paneer, his favorite. I got kudos from my in-laws for taking such good care of their son/brother.
I was feeling pretty special about my domesticity till last night when I met 2 other friends who happened to be Bengali. As many of you may be aware, when Bengalis meet two topics take precedence over others – food and politics. We were discussing food. I told them I have recently started making paneer at home and I use lemon to curdle the milk. Both of them nonchalantly mentioned they have always made paneer at home and they never buy it. Store bought paneer is never good and did I try vinegar to curdle milk instead of lemon juice? I was slightly crushed.
The question here is, did I mention to my family that homemade paneer is the norm and not the exception in Indian homes out there? Nope, nope, nope. Why would I? I want to see the glimmer of gratitude in Sean’s eyes at the cooking prowess of his queen wife who makes things from scratch just for him for the love that she carries in her heart for her husband.
I have already written a blog about aging. Apart from some physical distress, like diminishing eyesight and creaking knee, I do not mind getting older. It is a natural process and I find it pointless fighting it. This blog is not about aging but about becoming invisible, fading – literally!
I had read in books that women of a certain age start becoming invisible to the world. I have reached that age where I have started fading. People at stores and restaurants, often, look through me rather than at me. Here is the reality though – I love being invisible. As an introvert, I have tried my best to be invisible all my life and on occasion, when I have been thrust into spotlight, I have been most uncomfortable and after, drained. So being invisible to the world due to my age is a boon not a curse. I guess I am more than happy with the world seeing past me because the few people who matter most ‘see’ me.
This aging phenomenon is most interesting. With age, my outward appearance is somewhat fading. The sharp lines of the jaw area have slackened, the skin is loosening in an unattractive manner, the wrinkles on my forehead and laugh lines around the mouth are gaining prominence. The blue black hair of youth has significant strands of grey in them. I particularly love the grey around my temple. I feel it adds a certain depth to my being although my aunt in Kolkata shrieked when she saw me on a video call recently.
“Eki? Tor chul peke gelo?”
(What’s this? Your hair turned gray?”
Even my eye brows are thinning and look sparse. I think the thinning eyebrows are primarily responsible for this faded out look. I do not think about this much. Then why am I writing a blog on my slow fading, you ask? I am writing the blog because I took a selfie which was somewhat blurred by natural light. The irony became clear. My blurry, faded selfie looked beautiful. I don’t think this slow invisibility of a brown, middle aged woman is unbeautiful at all. I daresay this faded phase is rather pretty!
I thought of ending the blog with my photo but upon rereading this post, I felt this one reeked of narcissism although I was really going for the irony. Is this narcissism though, or self love? Anyway, narcissism is a sin, right? Just to take the narcissism angle out of the equation I will reveal that I used an eyebrow liner to fill in my sparse eyebrows.
There. Fixed it. 🤣
I pulled the robe tightly around me as I moved my bottom to get comfortable on the examination bed in my ob/gyn’s office. The crinkly paper underneath me crinkled in protest. I gave up trying to be comfortable and looked at my watch. I was waiting for 20 minutes now in a cold office with only a flimsy robe around me, ready to be examined by my adorable, very competent, extremely chatty gynecologist.
I have been going to her for the last 13 years and I adore her. Every year I worry she will retire and I will be left in a lurch. But after my exam and consultation, she gives me a hug and promises to see me next year. The problem is, she is friendly and chatty with ALL her patients. As a result, she is always running late to see her patients who are waiting next in line. I have learned over the years to ask the nurse how late is Dr.___ running that day. The answer I get from them is hopefully not too long, but who knows with Dr.____. Then we share a conspiratorial smile.
The nurse I got today is very new. She did not know how late the doctor was running. She also registered my weight 10 pounds less than I actually weigh but that is beside the point of this story. So I waited in a thin gown on an anxiety provoking examination bed in that solitary room. Generally I read a book. Today I simply looked at the cat decorations in the room, listened to the calming classical music playing in the background and paid attention to every sound that came from outside the examination room. I heard the footsteps coming towards my room, hope rose up in my chest and then fell as the footsteps went past my door. I heard voices, conversation, laughter and tried to discern if it was my doctor’s voice – finishing up with a patient. I could not tell. I heard pitter patter again outside my door and started to feel hopeful only to have my hopes dashed as my door did not open. It was a strange roller coaster of hope followed by disappointment with every sound of footsteps and conversation outside my door. Finally, when I was wondering if I should get my book out from my bag, I heard the welcome rat-a-tat-tat on the door. The door opened and in she came with a welcoming, “Hi honey! It is so good to see you. Oh my! Look at your hair. You are so gorgeous.”
I did not get a hug this time with Covid and all. But I got a promise of ‘see you next year, darling. You are in great health!’
I vowed to get her first appointment of the day next time. Although, she is totally worth the wait for her bedside manners and old school charm. These characteristics seem like lost treasures.
If you have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, recall how the story starts. Ashima reaches for the tin of Planter’s peanuts to mix with her puffed rice. She is attempting to recreate the popular street food available at every corner, every lane in the streets of Kolkata – jhaal muri. She adds the peanuts, some mustard oil, green chili to her puffed rice but it is not the same as what she remembers. Something is missing. The book stole my heart just by that vignette at the beginning – Ashima trying to recreate a comfort food in a land where she is new, everything is unknown. That is every immigrant at some point in their lives, isn’t it?
Papdi chat, as pictured above, is my absolute favorite street food that I make often at home. Either I have forgotten what the real thing tastes like or I have managed to create perfection or my palate has been compromised to think what I create is the epitome of papdi chat. No matter what the reason, I don’t feel like anything is missing from my concoction of papdi chat. Often I don’t have all the ingredients so I improvise. Today’s version included the following:
Papdis (wheat crisps, available in the snack aisle of Indian stores) – this forms the base. Top these with…
Half a cup of canned chick peas (garbanzo beans)
Half a boiled potato chopped into little cubes
2 tbsp of finely chopped raw onion (optional)
1 green chili finely diced – optional. If you like spicy, make it 2
2 tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves
1 cup of beaten yogurt poured over the mixture
2 tbsp of Chunky Chat masala
Half a cup or more, if you prefer, of tamarind date chutney
All this is topped with Haldiram’s Alu Bhujia (again available in Indian grocery stores)
I sometimes make it fancy by sprinkling pomegranate seeds on top.
Talk about burst of flavors in the mouth – crunchy, tangy, savory, sweet – perfection!
I say perfection and I am the only one who eats chat in our house. The non Indian and the part Indians do not care for it. I even go as far as to proclaim it as healthy – garbanzo beans, fat free yogurt, potatoes……healthy! At least that is my story and I am sticking to it.
We were married for no more than 3 months. I was totally fresh off the boat in a completely new country trying to deal with all the newness compounded with culture shock as well as living with a brand new husband when my newly wed groom declared he needs to travel internationally for work. Although I was 26 years old, I had never lived alone in my entire life. Forget living alone, I did not even have a separate room in all of those 26 years. When I heard I was going to be alone in an apartment in the middle of a bustling American city where I knew no one, did not know how to drive, did not know the streets very well except a few, I had a panic attack. Anyway, he left. I survived. That became the central theme of our relationship. Sean would travel every month for at least one week, more often two. I got used to his travels so much so that all I wanted to know from him were the dates of his departure and arrival along with his flight details. The names of the places he went to seemed made up anyway – Ouagadougou, Bangui, Jonglei, Agadez, Huehuetenango! During all these comings and goings, we built a life, had 2 children and a dog. And I got high blood pressure from worrying about him. He traveled to Afghanistan during Taliban era, to Sri Lanka when the rebels tried to blow up the airport where he was waiting at the time to catch a flight home, to Indonesia and adjoining countries after Tsunami, to Liberia while Ebola was rampant, to Bhuj, India AND Haiti when the horrible earthquakes claimed thousands of lives. In Haiti, he was in the middle of his shower when the aftershock of earthquake happened, and he had to rush outside with a towel around his waist.
The children got used to dad’s travels, they were sad when he left and ecstatic when he returned. It was all that they knew. Sean’s travels fell into the natural rhythm of our lives together. I ran around taking the children to their practices, swim meets, after school activities and when I could not be in two places at once, I asked for help from friends. It took a village.
Sean was grounded literally since the beginning of the pandemic. He has not traveled since February 2020 and does not have any plans to travel in the near future till things settle down and/or we get vaccinated. This state of static is new for both of us and I wondered how it would be to have him home 24/7. After a phase of initial adjustments we got used to his constant presence, his loud, booming telephone calls, his obsession with exercising and walking. And his constant giving. The man is a giver. During normal times, when he was not traveling, he made sure he did double doses of helping in raising the children and doing more than his share of housework. When he was with us, he was completely with us. Even before leaving for his trips, he tried his best to make sure my life would be as comfortable as possible while he was away. There have been times when he landed at the airport after a 17 hour plane ride, dropped his bags at home and drove to a swim meet or went to drop a kid somewhere because I was some place else with the other one, or he came home after a long trip and cleaned up the house because I could not (or did not) get to it. This past year he proved yet again what a great house husband he is, constantly picking up after me, keeping my car full, driveway clean as well as doing regular grocery store runs along with swim practice drives for our son. I told him with 80% sincerity that I would have even written a book about him and named it The Perfect Husband if only he could make gourmet dinners. Giving, doing, is his love language and he pours his love over us. His love spills over from his immediate family to those around him, his community, his work family and his global family.
As I wrote before, having Sean home at a stretch has been a new experience for me in our 24 years of marriage and as I was contemplating how it has been to be in such close proximity with my traveling partner, I realized it has been like being draped over with love, care and comfort. During this sad, awful time of anxiety and frustration, he has been my source of optimism. His faith and hope have often lifted me from depths of despair. So my big declaration on this Valentine’s day is that I LIKE my partner very much on top of loving him. That is it. That is my big declaration on this day of love.
Fresh off the boat story. I got introduced to different cuisines after my move to America. My first meal, once I landed in Boston, was spaghetti and meatballs made by my fiancé ‘s mother. It was different from what I was used to and delicious. The next day we went out for dinner with Sean’s family to an upscale restaurant. I looked at the menu and found nothing remotely familiar except the word ‘chicken’. I knew chicken, so I ordered lemon chicken. I took a bite and hated it immediately. For an Indian, chicken was not meant to be eaten bland with only tart lemon as the overpowering flavor. Chicken should be cooked in a myriad of spices, after lovingly sautéing onions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes…
My brother in law looked at my face after one bite of the chicken, laughed and asked if I liked my food. I contemplated if I should be polite or honest. I decided to be honest.
Anyway, after our marriage Sean introduced me to middle eastern food and a love story began between me and hummus, kebabs, koftas, tzatziki, tahini, baba ganoush. For the longest time though, I was confused as to why the delicious eggplant concoction was named after one of our most beloved Hindu gods, Baba Ganesh. Due to a touch of dyslexia, I read the menu wrong, Baba Ganesh instead of baba ganoush. And I heard it as Baba Ganesh when someone said out loud, baba ganoush.
One day, in complete innocence, I voiced my confusion to Sean, “Isn’t it strange that people named a food after a Hindu god? Why do you think they did it?”
“What do you mean? Which food?” He asked.
“Baba Ganesh! The eggplant dish that I love!” I confidently replied.
“Do you mean baba GANOUSH? Completely different from Ganesh.” Sean laughed.
It was a moment of euphoria and realization. Wait a minute…..two completely different words!!!
Yesterday, I made baba ganoush at home as pictured above. It looked lovely, I garnished it with love and as I was arranging the parsley, I remembered my confusion about the name of this dish long time ago. The memory made me smile.
I had to start work from 10 am. So I walked into the kitchen at 8:30, perused my pantry, discovered 2 cans of garbanzo beans and decided to make a quick, nutritious and tasty chana masala with them. I had found not one but 2 opened packets of MDH chana masala powder at the back of my Indian spice rack and decided to use at least one up. They should not have been left open. Who did that? (It was me, of course). I chopped onions, grated ginger, discovered there was no fresh garlic in the house to make fresh garlic paste so used powdered garlic (the purist in my cringed), lovingly washed and chopped tomatoes. I got all the ingredients ready, brought out my brand new kadhai and poured just a table spoon of oil to cook. This was going to be the inauguration of my new kadhai which I bought just 2 days ago. Once oil was hot, I put the chopped onions to cook along with a tsp of salt. This is a trick I learned to brown the onions evenly. Once onions were ready, I threw in fresh ginger paste and not fresh garlic paste followed by chopped tomato. After 5 or 6 minutes, once oil separated from the mixture, I added 2 heaping tablespoons of MDH chana masala powder gave it a good stir and let them cook for a few minutes. Once the masala looked nice and mixed, I added the drained and washed garbanzo beans, mixed them well with the spices and poured in hot water. It was meant to simmer for a while for all the flavors to mix in. That was all. Except this awful morning, this simple recipe backfired. I noticed, to my utter horror, little black flecks floated on top as soon as I poured water over the chana (garbanzo beans). Hoping they were cumin seeds, I picked up one on my finger and put it in my mouth. And crunched on it. They were NOT cumin seeds. I gagged and washed my mouth. The packet of chana masala was open for I do not know how many years and was infested with tiny black bugs, which were now floating on my lovingly made chana masala in my brand new kadhai. What an inauspicious inauguration of my much coveted cooking utensil!
Here is the thing though. If the morning starts with bugs in your food, the day can only get better from here, right? Gosh, it was so disgusting!
First, a few lines about this funny and beautiful memoir by Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in Farsi: A memoir of growing up Iranian in America.
Firoozeh’s father Kazem, an engineer with the National Iranian Oil Company, got assigned to consult for an American firm for about two years and moved to Whittier, California with his wife Nazireh, 7-year-old daughter Firoozeh and 14-year-old son Farsheed in 1972. Farid, their oldest son was already in US completing his high school education. Firoozeh Dumas begins her memoir, by documenting her experience at Leffingwell Elementary school where she sat in the classroom with her non-English-speaking mother as her elementary school teacher tried to make them feel welcome by talking about Iran and inviting her mother to point out Iran on a world map in front of the class. Firoozeh’s mother had no idea. With brilliant humor and wit, Dumas writes her experiences in this memoir of growing up as an Iranian immigrant in America, pre and post Iranian revolution. At the beginning of her memoir, Dumas is touched by the kindness that Americans show towards her immigrant family. She feels people are truly interested in knowing their culture and making them feel welcome. She is also perplexed in equal measure at the ignorance of folks about cultural life in Iran, asking her if she went to school in a camel and if so, where they kept their camel. And how many Persian cats she had. She went to school in her father’s Cadillac, but she resorted to answering the camel question by saying they kept the camel in their garage. She also writes about her experiences as an Iranian in America after the American hostage crisis in Iran and how American perspective about her family changes overnight. However, she does not harp on the cruelty she faced as an Iranian immigrant. Instead she focuses on her crazy yet fun extended family, their love and support for each other, their ambition to see their children succeed and their unmistakable love for their adopted country. In this memoir Dumas introduces us to her sweet and endearing dad, who fully immerses himself into the new culture that America offers which involves fast food, seeking to be rich via Bowling for Dollars, and every opportunity to save money, her elegant mother who never really learned English, her several aunts and uncles whose eccentricities and kindness make the readers smile. Just when her family thought they finally got over the culture shock of being in America, Dumas falls in love with a French man and subjects her family to yet another novelty that they must experience and learn. At the end though, love wins.
Quite a few of her experiences as an immigrant reflect mine. Like her, I have been asked if I went to school on an elephant (not camel) and if I were an Indian princess. I have experienced what I now label as microaggression and have learnt to respond with humor and hopefully, without malice or anger. There were two aspects in this book, however, that really spoke to me. The first one is food!! Oh, how I want the Iranian food that she writes about! And the second was family. Dumas writes about her close knit extended family who emigrated from Iran and chose to live near each other in USA. They congregated, feasted, celebrated, loved and supported. That is every immigrant’s dream. I must say this made me envious. I remember little Sahana desperately wishing that her family from both sides lived in our neighborhood next to each other. “Wouldn’t it be so fun mama if didiya, dadai, mashimoni, mashun, moni, mamai, shi dadai, shi didiya (her Indian family) lived on one side of the road and Grammy, uncles and aunts (her American family) lived on the other side?” Many immigrant children as well as children whose parents move to different states feel the absence of their grand parents, aunts and uncles in their lives as they grow. No one present on Grandparent’s day at school, no one to cheer from the sidelines in sports events or school events, graduation ceremonies or festivals. This is a big void. Immigrants form close relationships with other immigrants in a new land and they, over time, become family. But I can say from personal experience, that the faces that loom large when there is a major life event to share are those of the ones we left behind back home.
I was thrilled that Firoozeh Dumas grew up surrounded not only by her mom, dad and brothers but also by her loving aunts, uncles and cousins. I was also jealous. But ignore my base instinct, pay heed to my suggestion instead. If you want to read something heartwarming during these difficult times, pick up Funny in Farsi. I guarantee you will have a smile on your face.