Baba Ganesh or Baba Ganoush?


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.

Funny in Farsi and me


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.

My fight with television.


Do you remember those times when you wrote hand written letters and waited in eager anticipation to receive a reply in your actual mail box? I date myself when I write this that I am one of those people who checked my mailbox in the mid nineties everyday with the thrill of ‘maybe today there will be an aerogram’. These days checking the mailbox mostly involves a slight irritation at how many pieces of junk mail are going to the recyclable. It was not so about 24 years ago. We wrote letters home. We received letters from home. When I first came to United States in the mid nineties, at least twice every week, I gathered my new life in a new country and poured it on several pages of paper, documenting new sights and new experiences. I sealed the envelope, attached stamps and mailed them to my parents with a wistful sigh. In return, I received a white and blue aerogram bringing with it news from my home across the sea. It told me my cat had new kittens, the Krishnachura tree just outside our bedroom is full of new blooms, the little girl next door got into college, a cousin got engaged. It asked me when I was coming home. It told me I was loved, I was missed.

Along with the letters, there was a monthly phone call. I regularly went to Indian grocery store to buy calling cards to call home. I had to dial in what seemed like a thousand digits, the mechanical voice gave directions to next steps, after which I heard the home phone ring….all the way in Kolkata. Ma or Baba picked up the phone, their voice tinged with excitement and anticipation: “HELLO?”

Then came emails, followed by Facebook, followed by Skype calls, followed by Whatsapp video calls. I can call every day if I want. I don’t, due to the time difference, my work schedule and……Ma’s tv serial timing. Many moons ago, when I was naive about the importance of the television serials, I would call sometime in the morning (my time) thinking I will catch them sipping evening tea in the living room, ideal time for exchange of news and let’s face it……some satisfying, old fashioned, harmless gossip. I would call and the TV would be roaring in the background. Ma would answer yet her eyes would be shifty, glancing up towards the TV, responding with a very polite yet clear, “not now, get lost, we are just at the good part of the show” tone. I would say, “Why don’t you turn the TV down?” She would do it, but still the conversation would be half-hearted or she would say, “Here’s your baba, talk to your baba.” and hand over the phone.

After many such thwarted attempts at conversation, I realized what exactly was happening. Loknath Baba (tv serial), Rani Rashmoni (yet another tv serial) were going through important transformations in their lives (not really, these shows are masterful about dragging on and on) and ma was missing those milestones if I called at wrong time. I wizened up. Now I check my time and call right before the tv serials start or after all the shows have ended. If I call then, the tone is so different. It is a “tell me all about your life” tone. It is “I now have all the time in the world” tone.

There is, however, an exception to this rule. Instead of me, if Sahana calls her, she pays more attention to her grand daughter. Most days, Sahana’s call gets precedence over ongoing tv drama. She gets the “I am so glad to talk to you” tone. In Ma’s own words, “the interest is sweeter than the principal” (ashol er cheye shud misti). I am kind of evil. I make Sahana call and then I jump in to talk before the interest wanes and television takes over. 🙂

An Immigrant and Carl


I was fresh off the boat those days when I landed a job in a downtown hotel as a Select Guest coordinator. New marriage, new job, new country – life, then, was a little overwhelming, very exciting and full of hope. I was trying to understand this new country – its culture, tradition and most importantly, the accent. There were many ‘aha’ moments and then there were ‘oh my goodness, is that true?’ moments. At work I was somewhat of a novelty. In the mid nineties, I was the only Indian in that company so the questions I got ranged from ‘did you go to school on an elephant?’ to ‘are you an Indian princess?’ to ‘are you so quiet because if you talked loudly the tigers will come and get you in your country?’ (yes, I have been asked this question in complete seriousness. And yes, I used to be very quiet once upon a time, mainly because I did not understand what people were saying, the accent, you see!)

They were days when I looked down upon unfamiliar American sports and considered baseball as a poor cousin of the king of sports, cricket and considered American football bestial. Sean tried a few times to expound the virtues of baseball (faster than cricket) and of his team Red Sox but I argued relentlessly to prove him wrong. He made fun of cricket and I made fun of baseball.

As a Guest Coordinator, I had to attend meetings every morning with the Assistant General Manager of the hotel along with the heads of reservation, front desk, hospitality etc. One time, the hotel was hosting a big event where love and pride of Maryland, the star baseball player of the state was going to feature. So at the meeting, I said, “So when Carl Ripken arrives….”. I was cut off quite rudely as the room erupted in laughter. There were loud guffaws all around me. I looked at them puzzled. What caused this eye watering mirth? The Assistant GM said, “What did you say? Carl Ripken? Hahahahaha. Guys, we have to take her to a ball game. We need to educate her in baseball! It is our responsibility!” More hahahahahas followed. I was still puzzled. “What is so FUNNY?” The head of Reservations was a very nice woman who finally wiped her tears and said, “His name is CAL Ripken and he is a legend in these parts!”

See, growing up in a country which was under British rule for many, many years, I knew the language relatively well and I was certainly familiar with names like Tom, Dick, Harry, John, Johnathan, Carl, Bill, William, even Julian (Enid Blyton, Famous Five, in case you are wondering). I was not aware someone could be named Cal. I thought my American mates said Cal but they just pronounced Carl in a different way than I did. And yes, I perhaps never encountered Ripken’s name in written words. There are many excuses I can provide but the bottom line is, I never lived down that story during the time that I worked at that hotel. I was often the target of a friendly banter about ‘Carl’ Ripken.

Cal Ripken is coming to my library for a book talk. I have a baseball crazy almost 11-year-old, who has read Cal’s books and would dearly love to see this legend and perhaps shake his hand, if he is allowed. The tickets to that event sold out in four minutes and I could not get him a seat. His face fell when I told him that. Now our only hope is to try to buy a book and see if he can get a picture with Cal. In between calling the library to secure a spot and trying online, I remembered this story from the past when I did not even know the name of this man at one point. And here I am, getting excited that he will use a room close to my office as his green room before he talks about his book, and I may get a glimpse of him. I have indeed come a long way!

I don’t think about it often, after living in this country for so long, but I realized yesterday what a daunting task it is for immigrants to any country to learn whatever they can about the cultural, social and political history of the land they have emigrated to. The venture is exciting, enlightening and yes, overwhelming.