What time is dinner?


Interracial, interfaith, transnational marriage like ours had and continues to have certain novelties, discoveries, realizations. Realizations about our differing norms, cultures, way of doing things, comfort zones. After a marriage of 24, almost 25 years, we feel like we dealt with most of them but there are times when the differences in our upbringing come to the forefront. One such realization came to me during the holiday season in 2020. It is the question that Sean asks, “What time are you planning dinner?”

I did not grow up with that question or truly planning a meal time during festivals or even during daily life. In Kolkata, when the family got together for any occasion, food was, of course, the epicenter of all festivities but the time when that food will be consumed was anybody’s guess. There were perfunctory questions about  what time is lunch or dinner but nobody knew. We ate when the food was ready. And even when the food was ready, the guests had to be coaxed to the dinner table if they were involved in a ‘jomati adda’ (rough translation would be engrossing gossip, although gossip is not really a proper translation for the Bengali word, adda). The concept of ‘adda’ is so quintessentially Bengali that there is no accurate translation of the word in any other foreign language or even any other Indian languages to the best of my knowledge. During a gathering, food was eaten in a certain hierarchical order that I have noticed – children were fed first followed by the men folk, lastly the women sat down to eat amidst much chatter, laughter and camaraderie.  As many know that in Bengal we eat with our hands. Sitting with others just laughing and chatting long after one’s food has been eaten with sticky fingers is one of my most fond memories. Time, during the days of celebration, was only of importance when one had to maintain the auspicious moments when a puja had to be performed. During the rest of the day, time was relegated to the back ground, it did not control us. We controlled our day. We were propelled during those special days by our needs – desire for togetherness, hunger, laughter, puja, rather than routine. Those days were refreshingly freeing, unbound from time.

My experience in USA has been different with my American family. During most of our celebrations – Thanksgiving, Christmas, there is a specific time for dinner. I observe in the torrential flurry of activities of my extended family, who prepare the big meals for our get togethers, how flustered they seem to get everything on the table by a certain time, all hot from the oven or stove top. Dinner will be served at 2 and that is the goal! I still can not get used to rigidity of time on a day of celebration. For me, the languorous stretch of time defines how a festival or gathering of family should be celebrated.

Sean asks me, always, what time is breakfast or dinner or lunch when I plan to celebrate bhai phota or a special breakfast or a special dinner at home. The question bothered me at the beginning. I felt the day was being segmented by tying meal times within a set time frame so I used to respond, “When it is ready!” That answer threw him off. I realized he planned his activities around the time I will give him for the meal I was preparing. So I adjusted. I give him a time and now I prepare food with one eye on the clock. It takes away the spontaneity of celebration, so when I go home celebrations take on more meaning when the chaos of meal times return.

Difference


I was often asked in the early years of my marriage to a man of different ethnicity, how do I deal with the cultural difference. I scratched my head and pondered. Was there much of a difference? Sean and I were different culturally but the core values were (and still are) very similar. We both firmly believe in honesty, integrity, transparency, we are both stubborn, control freaks, we both love being parents. We have similar views on world peace, gun control, liberalism so on and so forth.

There were some cultural differences though. And the differences came to mind as I slit two green chilies and threw them in the egg curry I was making for supper a little while ago. When we were newly married, he called me a hot chick and I took extreme umbrage at the endearment. I lashed out at him for not respecting me as a woman. He was flabbergasted at my reaction to his effort at being romantic and quickly mollified me by saying, ‘Must be a cultural difference, I meant you are attractive!’ After asking around and being laughed at by our mutual friends I accepted the fact that he was genuinely trying to be cool and romantic.

He called my purse ‘pocket book’, I never figured out why.

“Why do you call this a pocket book? It is neither a book nor is it a pocket!” I exclaimed.

“Well that is what it is called. Not purse. Purses are small!” He countered.

Then we would get into a major argument over it till we decided to let it go by terming it as a cultural difference.

He laughed hard when I swatted at him and said, “Don’t give me that cock and bull story!”

“What is cock and bull?” He laughed.

“What!!!! Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means! You are a native English speaker! Hello!! Do I need to teach you English now? I laughed back at him.

“We call that bull shit!”

“Well, I am classier than that, I guess!” I came right back.

One time we fought over the meaning of ‘karma’ all morning. We both got dressed in a huff and ran over to Enoch Pratt library to look at dictionaries and encyclopedias. This happened at a historic time, pre Google. Can you believe time existed, life existed before smart phones and Google? There you go, I went ahead and dated myself.

And we joked constantly over British English and American English. It took me a while to drop the ‘u’,s in favor, color. But eventually I did. I conformed. I gave in. Although I am still an anglophile at heart.

After 20 years of knowing him we don’t think of cultural difference any more. Now the difference of opinion is in our choices of football teams and baseball teams. So why did I think of the cultural difference as I evilly threw in the green chilies? Because Sean, despite his fondness for Indian food, can not tolerate the smell and spice of green chilies. And I can not ever become American enough to forego my love for it. I put green chilies in dal, vegetable, paneer either as a garnish or I make a puree of it by processing it in the food processor. I assure you, I go easy on the number of chilies I put, but if Sean happens to chew on one, he yelps and hiccups. I feel slightly guilty and decide not to add them next time. But when I see the golden daal simmering beautifully in the pot, the Bangali in me reaches for a lovely, lush green chili (errr…maybe more). It looks so beautiful and familiar, it smells so fragrant and yes, familiar. How can I resist it? Similar with achaar (Indian pickle). I have indoctrinated my two children into loving achaar – lime pickle. Their meal is not complete without it. While Sean can not stand the smell of it.

“You are not a true Indian!” I say to him. “I have failed to Indianize you!!”

“Uff, I don’t know how you can stand that stuff!” He replies.

And then, when he discovers a green chili in his daal, he says to the kids, “Your mom is trying to trick me again. She is trying to kill me! Help!”

You will think of me as very mean, but I will go ahead and confess that I laugh hysterically (although soundlessly) after he bites into a green chili by mistake. What? It has some vitamin or other. It is good for him. As they say in India, you don’t really grow up unless you learn to eat green chillies. I am just helping my husband grow – culturally.

🙂