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.

My happy place


I woke up the next morning, sat up on my bed and saw the ocean peeking in through my bedroom window. After almost three weeks, I still remember the overwhelming feeling of contentment that I experienced at that moment. I often feel extremely blessed in what I have in my life. That was one such moment. There would be many moments during the course of our stay on that island where I felt an inexplicable gratitude towards the universe for allowing me to witness such beauty. I felt most spiritual, most connected with the universe in my solitary moments while I sat alone on a rocky beach with no human in sight. Just me, the vast body of water in front of me and scraggly yet majestic rocks that rose above the low tide.

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We quickly settled into a routine on the island. I generally went for long, solitary walks traversing the entire length of the island after a leisurely cup of coffee in front of the water. On those walks, I saw the island creatures – colorful garter snakes, deer, wild turkeys, a ferret like creature who lived near our house. Those walks were also times when I introspected about this life that I was leading, where I was at present in this journey and where I was headed. I spent time with myself, which is a rare thing to do in my daily life. I am a mother who juggles too many balls to ensure the ones dependent on me have a smooth life. I don’t have much or any time for myself. This island break gave me a week to spend with me, the person, not me the mother, wife, worker.

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If asked what was most memorable time in that island I will say it was the thirty minutes that I spent by myself sitting on a secluded rocky beach with the vast expanse of sky over me and inky blue water crashing against the rocks. Little sail boats gliding gently by, the regular swish of water against rocks, perhaps the shrill cry of a gull once in a while and the excitement of an extended cormorant family complete with babies, moms, dads, uncles, aunts, grand moms, granddads cavorting on their rock. Many thoughts crossed my mind, solitary thoughts, personal thoughts, peaceful thoughts, reassuring thoughts that beauty like what I was witnessing abounds our planet, despite man made divisiveness and destruction and the fact I was lucky enough to witness just a tiny part of it.

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The second most memorable time I spent on that island was with my girl. We walked over to the secluded rocky beach of the island and then hopped on the scraggly rocks to see where it would take us. Our path was difficult hence the adventure was thrilling. We strategized, mapped out, warned each other of wobbly ones and slippery ones, squealed when the cold water lapped up to our toes and scrambled higher. We hugged the coast and made our way around the island boosted by our strength and ability to haul ourselves up. I apologized to home owners whose private beaches we trespassed, they cheered us on, while Sahana apologized to each and every spider in our path since we were breaking some spider webs. We made it to the tipping cove, scurried through tall grass fearing ticks and eventually took the boring path home. But we were conquerors of the unknown and we bragged about our conquest till nobody cared any more.

Ryan disowned his own family and hung out with his ten other cousins, eating, roaming, diving down the dock at the wake of the ferry and working at the only tiny pizza store of the island for candy as payment. The boys judiciously watched the clock between playing baseball, tennis and hide and go seek. As soon as it was the time for the ferry they left everything they were doing to go to their jobs of unloading supplies for the store from the ferry. The vacation, for an eleven year old was idyllic and most importantly, free – something that children in cities and suburbs have forgotten.

Remember the kayaks, Sasha and Hexel? Well, they were put to good use as my husband took them out with his brother, his son or his daughter to explore the nearby islands. Sometimes they were gone for three hours or more.

This is what we all needed. Time. Time to connect with each other and also time to disconnect and seek solitude. I believe we were immensely successful. We left the island almost two months ago, yet today, on this dreary, rainy, gloomy day, the island’s memories are a beacon to me. I can go back in my mind to this happy place and I am not gloomy anymore.