12. On Joy, Homesickness, About The Need For Flowers, & Some Pub News!
How to express joy in a pandemic and other such queries.
Happy belated Durga Puja, belated Bijoya Dashami, belated Dussehra and early Diwali. Yes, desis have a whole lot of festivals we celebrate at this time. We tend to celebrate throughout the year, but October-December, we go full throttle, on festivals, weddings, and celebrations all round!
This time—the second one during the pandemic that doesn’t end, I wore a sari, made food (as we ALL do), and grinned at the iPhone like a fool to celebrate Durga Puja.
The Question of Joy
I get asked why I am so happy in these photos which is curious and an interesting ask. We demand joy of each other. We expect the other to be joyous, positive, optimistic and we feel uncomfortable when the other says, no, I will NOT smile for you. But, but. We ALSO feel the other owes an explanation if we ARE happy, or ARE positive, or ARE confident. In this pandemic, ESPECIALLY in this pandemic, where we are all holding on by a mere thread, I advocate and hope you do too—I advocate consideration and care. You have NO idea what the other is going through. But what you do have is joy and the projection of it. If you feel joyous, even if you don’t feel 100% but it’s more than the usual gloom-and-doom, do it! Life is too short to be fake.
For Durga Puja, I cooked Baba’s meals—food he liked because he died the tenth day of Pujas of a massive heart attack two decades ago. I choose to celebrate his life, his laugh, his joy. Every year, I cook his meals, and feed my friends. This year, the second year in this pandemic, I was able to feed my #girlgab in person in the backyard. Joy is what makes sense to you. It shouldn’t matter if no one else gets it.
Here is a chicken curry that I baked instead of stovetop which gave it more of a tandoori/bar-be-cue taste I made to celebrate that day and my Baba.
The Question of Flowers
As a child, I was surrounded by flowers, because Baba was our resident green thumbs. We had canna lilies, dahlias, chrysanthemums, rajnigandha in between many varieties of grafted roses of many colors. And the vegetable garden was everything a girl could want—okra, capsicum, potatoes, chilies, pumpkin, loofah, green beans, eggplant. Baba could and would grow everything. As I grew up, I would get attracted to the beautiful bouquets of orchids and carnations in the rich South Delhi neighborhood of Greater Kailash, Part I (Part II was rich too, but Part I was the generational wealth folks). Didi and I went to the Chinese restaurant if we had saved enough for chili-corn soup or a dosa at the South Indian joint on the top floor of the middle building, next to the fancy beauty parlor. Then we gaped at the flowers, wrapped in cellophane, tied with silky ribbons, with glitter thrown in for good measure. We couldn’t afford them. We didn’t have the means. So we gaped. Much like at the English bookstore in that fancy neighborhood shopping center.
Fast forward to 1993. I am in America, a poor graduate student in Long Island. I cannot afford a nice meal, let alone flowers. I have a three-speed bike—a bike that was abandoned behind my lab that my PhD advisor said, “Here, Madhu, wheels for you. Now you can get to lab quicker.”
I use that bike to get around campus, grocery shopping and sometimes to the pebble-y rocky beaches near Stony Brook. I am homesick as only an immigrant student can be. I miss joy. I miss color. America is cold, white and filled with dread.
America is cold, white and filled with dread.
The first two years are the most traumatic for me and this may be the first time I admit it. I learn to mask my homesickness. I head to the City to watch Broadway plays for cheap, eat doughnuts and hotdogs to ‘assimilate’. I am an outsider and I don’t know how to feel otherwise. I still feel that way, three decades later, only, now I feel like that, even when I am in Delhi.
Five years later, with an additional masters in chemistry and then the ever-elusive and ever-attractive PhD in biochemistry, I head to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology. I now get $23,000 as my annual paycheck and for me, that is such a step up. The reason why I mention the number is because I feel we don’t talk about the poverty-level existence most graduate students live in for years, decades even. We get used to poverty, we find humor in our want, we learn to be grateful for small acts of kindness. With nearly $2K per month, I am not at poverty-level. And yet, a year ago, at ~$13K per year, I was poor as a graduate student.
We get used to poverty, we find humor in our want, we learn to be grateful for small acts of kindness.
The 2021 poverty guidelines for the US is exactly that—$12.8K is poverty-level. So, getting $10K more was like hitting the lottery. I shopped at Whole Foods-like expensive stores for the first time—drank organic milk for the first time in America, went to farmers markets and picked up greens like I used to in India with Baba. I was almost privileged. Almost white.
The only thing that kept me back from spending more, was that I was saving up every year to go home. Visit the family I’d left behind. It was cyclical. Save. Buy ticket. Buy gifts. Go home. Return. Save again. Buying flowers, besides organic butter, spinach, chicken, milk and eggs was frivolous. Who needs flowers? So I didn’t. For years. And when the postdoctoral salary made me feel rich, I chose the cheapest flowers I could buy for myself, and make up for my homesickness. Carnations. Pink carnations.
The first time I bought a bunch, the checkout girl said, “Nice flowers on a Friday!”
“Yes, I know, right?”
“If a boy doesn’t buy you flowers, then you should buy them. Good for you.”
I didn’t know what she meant—did I need a boy to buy me flowers? And why didn’t boys buy me flowers, I wondered. But that wasn’t the point, was it? I bought these carnations because they made me happy. Because this checkout girl, her hair up with a maroon scrunchie, and eyes hidden behind thick black-rimmed glasses, told me that boys should have bought me flowers, every Friday, I made it a point to buy me carnations from that expensive store, go to her line, and buy those flowers for me. It was to prove to her and me, no one needs to buy me anything. I buy those flowers because I want to, because carnations at $3.99 is all I can afford and that will have to do.
In hindsight, I am sure she was celebrating my flowers, but everything seemed to be a challenge for me in 1997, and I needed to prove to everyone I was okay, I wasn’t homesick, I didn’t miss Ma and Baba, I was okay.
Flowers in the Pandemic
In the pandemic, having flowers in my house became imperative. Three decades after graduate school, flowers are ever present in my house. It brings me joy, and the color is what home is. Home is where I am—geography doesn’t mean anything anymore. Trapped in my house, I grow hibiscus and rosemary in my yard and make wonky bouquets out of them.
Last week I bought a few chrysanthemums from Trader Joes. I have graduated from carnations. I don’t even look at the price tag when I pull a bouquet or two into my cart.
The reason why I show you this, is yes, it brings me joy, but it also reminds me that Baba would have liked to see color in his daughter’s house. That makes me happy. So everything does come full circle—he remains in my heart, in every thing I do, in every flower I bring home, and in every color I choose to live in.
So it wasn’t a surprise on that day, when The University of Iowa Press told me that the tentative publication date of Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family is March 29th, 2022.
My peeps, yes, I’ve been talking about it forever, because I’ve been living this life for many years, and this books for two decades. Two decades is a heck of a long while and yet, short enough for anyone who is middle-aged like me. Poof and the world shifts and the next generation is in charge while you were waiting to be. This is a book that honors my Baba, my food, where I come from. It also tells you about others who migrated, or were indentured or forced to flee what their lives became in the new, different, not-home home.
I hope you join me on this ride, as we get the cover reveal in a few weeks. I hope I can share with you the joys, fears, fun, and frustrations of debut writers and writing in general. Ask me if you have any questions, and I’ll do my best to answer.
This version of the newsletter isn’t the usual rant of mine, nor highlighting books I’ve read. I just wanted to talk to you about homesickness that’s constant, and missing parents who are long gone is as constant too.
Thanks for listening. Thanks for choosing to read my words.