“Ew, fish”

Was a very common phrase I heard while growing up. The repulsion that fish has the power to bring about in vegetarians around me was something I was used to witnessing.

Fish was supposed to be disgusting. Of course, those who thought this way had never bothered to try it. It was disgusting because of the way it smelled- stinky, apparently.

When the outbursts began, I would grow very quiet- just looking and nodding. That’s how I react when anybody gets violent feelings about something that I don’t necessarily think ‘weird’ or ‘disgusting.’ Perhaps in this case it was guilt- I was hiding something.

Fish is an everyday occurrence when you grow up in a Malayali household. In fact, the absence of fish is what is weird for us. I was leading a double life. I would go to school and listen to people hate on fish, and come back home and eat it with renewed vigour. To this day, fried fish, rice, moru curry, and cabbage thoran remains one of my favourite meals.

When in school, it is easy to brush these comments aside. I didn’t know enough to be embarrassed or upset. I didn’t think enough to realise that when she said I smelled like fish she was hinting at something else.

They were talking about how South Indian- how non-veg, I was.

When I started living alone in Dubai, I began to cook a lot of fish in nostalgia. This scared my mother. When I joined a new job, she had only one piece of advice- “Don’t take fish for lunch.”

At first, I thought this was about the smell. Only the smell. Sure, granted, fish does have a very strong piercing smell. But over the past few months, I have been realising that it also has to do with the many divides in India, that are specially packaged and brought into Dubai.

Where does this inability to tolerate fish come from? They lift their noses in the air and put their hands on their chest attempting to control their gag reflexes. How can something so repulsive be consumed in front of me? how can it be offered to me? The offence intended is carefully masked by claims of vegetarianism. Is your choice really that liberal if it comes at the cost of my culture? Is your hatred justified if it stomps all over my memories and feelings?

She came and told me about how she likes South Indians a lot. We have a unique look- which she likes. She has a clear idea of how south Indians must look and must not look, it allows her to get offended when someone asks her if she is South Indian, and retort with comments like, “You look more South Indian than me.”

What do you do when your culture- one that you only began appreciating over the past few years- begins to get threatened? belittled? You have two options- forsake it, and blend in with the norm because you have the privilege to do so; or fall in love with it even harder and defend it from the effects of ignorance.

Of course, I chose the latter. After all, I eat fish, I’m too smart to give up all that I’ve learned so far.


Jelly for Papa

Today is my father’s birthday. Though he didn’t celebrate it much, I’m sure he would have liked to. How do I know this? I just know.

I remember that he wanted a very grand 50th birthday party, but that never happened. I guess we were just too small to be able to plan one for him. I wish we weren’t.

But we did something anyway, in our small capacity–We made jelly. Jelly has always looked very rich and glorious to me, like a precious ruby stone if the light hits it right. It was chosen that day because too much sugar has always been frowned upon in our house, and jelly wiggles around somewhere on the borders of that restriction.

Red jelly was made in a glass bowl, and a tiny silver teaspoon was slipped inside. I don’t know why. Perhaps because we needed a cause to eat through this wobbly substance that makes your teeth question their purpose.

Jelly in hand, we went to him that afternoon as a Malayalam film played on in the background. He sat on the edge of the sofa, legs stretched out and resting on our carpet, crossed at his ankle. He smiled kindly at our jelly. We sang happy birthday, and he scooped some of that shiny red onto his spoon.

It was a pathetic way to celebrate a birthday I think, but it is the only celebration of his birthday I can remember. So I made the jelly again today, on his 59th birthday. But there is no Asianet film no interrupt, there is no glass bowl, and there is no papa to spoon out glorious red jelly, and giggle at the spoon frozen inside.

There is only a void of regret, memories that wiggle near the border of sweet and unsweet, and a white bowl of jelly with a spoon stuck inside it. Purposeless jelly, serving it’s purposelessness.


Baking Buns

The yeast was not forming bubbles in the water. Not after five minutes, not even after ten minutes, and definitely not after I had finished reading two more chapters.

But the yeast water definitely smelled like yeast.

So I made a little hole right at the center of my flour and salt mixture, and drowned it in my bubble-less yeast water.

After a lot more flour than specified, I had a little dough ball of sorts. I let it rest until it doubled in size and looked like saggy but smooth, olive oily skin. I poked it once, twice and folded it thrice.

Four buns were baked, golden from being generously coated with olive oil. Upon each, delicate cracks, because I had attempted to carve patterns.

Chumma Stories

Cook Little Mina, Cook!

“Mina! come and help me in the kitchen, simply sitting and watching tv.”

“Yaa Mina, go do kiitcheen work, ahahha” Nino teased.

Mina glared at her brother. “He was older, he was also dumber, but why did he never have to work in the kitchen?” she thought to herself, “what a douchebag” she said out loud.

She stepped into the kitchen and stood watching her mother mix the cabbage thoran with the broken wooden spatula, a few yellow pieces fell out on the stove, Her mother would clean that up at 3, after everyone was fed.

“Mina, you make the mango chutney. I don’t have time.”

“Ugh. okay.”

Mina despised the kitchen. In five minutes of standing there, your forehead, your mustachey upper lip, your back, neck, would all break into sweat. And if you were forced to wear a bra, as Mina was today, since her father and brother were both at home and “young girls should dress a certain way when men are at home”, you had your personal undershirt waterfall. “Why was the kitchen so hot always?” Mina thought to herself, wiping away the first of many beads of sweat.

She opened the refrigerator and felt some temporary relief, even though there wasn’t any particular smell, she still liked to inhale cold air and feel her nose close for a second before she exhaled. Ice vapours rushed to meet her face and she bent down to pick out one mango, two green chillis, some shredded coconut, small onions, ginger and garlic.

“Mina, take out some ginger garlic for me also” her mother said with her hand stretched out, Mina put it in to her mothers hand almost immediately. It was ike she knew exactly how much her mother needed, “so weird…” Mina thought to herself.

She set the cutting board on the counter below the masala rack. She began chopping all her chutney ingredients.

“Pass the powder Mina”

“okay now the other powder”

“okay now the…” Mina handed over the mustard seeds “ah yes that only”

“What is this power?” Mina thought to herself, amused. Mina knew exactly what was needed and when, “this is awesome!” she smiled.

Mina began to put all the chopped ingredients into the mixer, she was aware of the sweat pouring down, she was irritated by it. She was about to shut the mixer when her mother put in a pinch of salt and a little more coconut. Mina closed the mixer and switched it on, “why isn’t this switching on?” she looked, confusingly. Her mother rotated the mixer once more to let it sit correctly on the stand and it started grinding.

When Mina took a bowl from the drawer to empty the chutney, her mother closed the drawer behind her. When her mother went to the fridge to take out something, Mina immediately filled her place and continued stirring the masala mix. Her mother came back to stir and Mina went to take out some coconut oil to pour in the pan. “What coordination Mummy and I have….” Mina wondered. They were in sync all throughout, they were both copiously sweating too, but Mina didn’t seem to care, she had never felt so sure before. Her mother and her seemed to have some exotic chemistry in the kitchen, they were dancing together in perfect beat, each one knew what the other one wanted, neither got in the others way- puppets controlled by an expert, there was a perfectly established system, a choreography that seemed to have been practiced many times before.

Many streams of sweat later, the food was ready. Mina helped her mom set down the bowls and the family sat to eat lunch. Mina was too delighted by that power she felt in the kitchen. She had never felt such power before, “What is this power that Mummy and I seem to share in the kitchen?” she wondered. “Why don’t I feel it anywhere else?”

“Ey Mina” her dad burped out, when he saw his daughter engrossed in some happy thought near the window, “come and massage my legs, nothing you do all day” and he lifted his legs and lay on the sofa, eyes darting between her and the Tv.

Mina’s illusion of power was suddenly broken. She was just Mina again. Mina who had to massage her fathers feet while her own feet hurt from standing in a hot kitchen.

“I’ll go back to the kitchen tomorrow, that power might come back again.” Mina said to herself, grabbing the bottle of oil to go massage her fathers feet.