Good is the mere recognition: a card and a new outfit – or toy (all purple and pink, of course). Good is showing up, acknowledging that you’re three, four, and now five. Good is eating deep-fried chicken nuggets, apple slices and cake, and remembering to eat a proper lunch before arriving because all that tea-party theme is good for is your imagination, and nobody’s blood sugar. Good is knowing that the card will be in the trash within the week (the wrapping paper sooner, torn to shreds without being admired).
Good enough, that I remembered your birthday in order to mail you that package with the card and gift (don’t forget the gift!) in time for your day.
Better is our presence, a family reunion of sorts: you get to see us, we get to see you, and for a brief weekend, we’re close. Better is a card you’ll pore over because it’s different and grabs your fancy, because I’ve written, in careful cursive, some thoughts that you know you’ll want to read when you understand more – when you’re fifteen, twenty and twenty-five. Better is the gift that won’t get tossed aside after a week because you already have that toy, or so many of the same. Better is the gift that didn’t get put aside until you were older, but you enjoyed every day. From this moment of five and every other moment until twenty-five. If we’re both lucky to have found something that endures.
Best is that unique birthday you’ll remember forever because Uncle and Auntie were there, and the weekend together sparked magic that formed your first, earliest memories.
By celebrate, I mean partake of a feast. My family comes from a place and people who have a saying: there’s one more festival than there are months in the year. Baro maashe tero porbon. In a twelve-month year, there are thirteen reasons to celebrate.
We’ll take them all: to revel in plenty and sustenance, to dispel ill influences. To celebrate births, marriages – and even death, for the possibility of eternal release.
My mother’s always cooked elaborate dishes and meals, matching flavors and seasonings to reflect the season and occasion. Shukto, meant to cleanse the palate and keep your system cool during the monsoon – but made of ubiquitous zucchini, since that’s what she could find that best resembled her favorite bottle gourd.
My father cooked as well – specific dishes that he loved made just so, as well as snacks from street vendors that reminded him of his college experience. While it wasn’t quite the same as ordering it up with a flourish from his favorite food cart, at least he could replicate them: nimki (both kucho and three-cornered), kochuri with spicy potato curry, and of course, shingara.
If my grandmother offered a special prayer for us, she’d mail us tiny crumbs of the sweets she offered to the gods in the next letter or aerogram she sent us. They were just small enough not to require added postage for weight. Those crumbs, having been blessed , were mighty. They were large enough to carry the weight of her love and caring across continents and oceans to us.
Nearly every meal we ate was home-cooked; birthdays and religious observances had their own elaborate recipes and dishes.We ate this way because it’s what my parents knew to eat and to cook, and what we children learned to savor. We ate this way also because my parents wanted my brother and me to know our heritage: through food, as well as language and customs. Eating out was not something we did for convenience, but for curiosity and knowledge (what’s a chicken fried steak taste like?) – and community. If it was the latter, it was more than likely home-cooked by ladies in the community – the wives and mothers in our extended, midwestern South Asian community.
So it’s unfathomable that of so many recipes and holidays, I can’t remember a single special New Year’s dish, leave alone a feast. Not made by my mother, or anyone else’s.
In talking with my family over the weekend, none of us can figure out why the New Year went unmarked every year.
Perhaps it was hard to find fresh jaggery syrup for the requisite payesh (rice pudding)? But that had never stopped us before – we either substituted solid jaggery, or enjoyed local molasses. While its sulfurus taste is nothing like jaggery’s understated minerality, something in their viscosities are similar enough to satisfy my father’s palate.
Reflecting on it further, we figured out that our New Year coincided with a busy time of year in the New World and life, at least a century removed from the more pastoral life of our forbears. My parents were preoccupied with commutes across a city to their workplaces, caring for a household without a network of family and household help (still more traditional in India and many parts of Asia), and making sure my brother and I made the best of our education, focusing on projects and papers, contests and concerts, and preparing for final exams. In the heartland, it was an early year-end: we ended school between the middle and end of May, and resumed again in early to mid-August. Perfect for planting season.
Then there’s the mid-April deadline that Americans love to hate – my father gnashed his teeth over it, every year. My mother was preparing for her own last day of school as a teacher, every year. We started preparing for my grandparents summer visit at around this time, every year.
It’s no wonder that among so much, with just small network of fellow revelers, we routinely missed celebrating the New Year.
This New Year, I ate with a purpose – I marked Poila Boishakh. Shubho Noboborsho!
Another Halloween’s come and gone, and I still clearly remember last year’s eager trick-or-treater angling for another fistful of candy.
“Do you mind if I take another?” she asked with conviction.
Hers was a simple yet clever costume: a pair of fairy wings much too large for her frame, and matching eye shadow, plus a smear of you’re-far-too-young-for-that-color lipstick. She was the older of the trick-or-treating duo – and as I looked over her diminutive companion, I realized they looked far too much alike to be anything other than sisters.
Her hand was already reaching for candy bowl, after rooting through with swift, practiced thoroughness to retrieve two handfuls of the treats that she preferred – the first for little sister, the second for her. I was indignant yet amused: this winged sprite, no more than 8 or 9 at best, knew exactly what she wanted. She treated herself to as much as she could scoop up, single-handedly. It was no more than others had taken, and no less than I expected.
She smiled with her lips and watched carefully with her eyes – and came in for another handful during my moment of hesitation. Another two, actually: another one for her younger sister, and then for herself. All the while a smile, and perfunctory expressions of thanks.
I stood there staring, wondering whether I was indignant at her presumption, or in awe of her deft negotiation. Both, I decided.
A neighbor who witnessed the entire encounter remarked that “those people” came into our neighborhoods because “they” couldn’t get candy in their own neighborhood. My retort was that at least she dressed up and asked politely for what she wanted, and got it. There were costume-less teenagers from our neighborhood who simply held out trash bags, zombie-like, with an expectation of candy. I half-wished I had turned away: shouldn’t I get the treat of seeing a costume, no matter how haphazard or simple?
And I still had enough candy for the evening – just far less than I expected. If everything my neighbor perceived about this little girl were true, then she was doing her best for first her sibling then herself with the best tools and circumstances she had – and doing so with a certain panache. In the end, I reflected that the only problem I had with the situation was her precocious panache. I didn’t expect such social dexterity in a child so young.
If she wields it well, she’ll go far.
A month ago, I found myself in a crowded security line, waiting to take a plane home. Ahead of me was a woman: short, neatly attired, with no sense of glamor. She looked careworn, yet stood ramrod straight. Behind me was a businessman: at least 6 foot in his height, suited, cool demeanor.
We each emptied our belongings into bins and onto the conveyer, and the woman ahead of me and I moved back a few steps to take our turn through the detectors. The businessman moved straight to the detector, and went through, after a brief backward glance at the line. It seemed in that moment he realized that he’d jumped a line that he was unaware of: a quirk of his eyebrow acknowledged us, as if in apology.
But he went through. And no one stopped him – not the woman in front of me, and not I. It only struck me after he went through that perhaps I could have done the same. And yet, my politeness and social consciousness kicks in.
For context, understand that each of these situations lasted at most 30 seconds. They’re mere moments in time, hardly enough for the average person to react and redirect the course of situation, especially where strangers one will never encounter again are involved in interaction.
What I will remember about the airport a year from now is that the businessman went through anyway, with a spur-of-the-moment, implied apology. What I will remember about the young trick-or-treater is her boldness. Each presumed, with a certain politeness and poise.
Social conditioning and thought-leaders suggest that I will remember the trick-or-treater long after I forget the businessman because of her gender, her race, her age. He’ll be admired for doing as he should; she’ll be lucky if she’s not judged as grasping and aggressive.
I keep writing drafts about my second act – but it’s still so new. Maybe this time next year, I’ll have enough to look back and reflect upon.
In the meantime, I give you a brave second act. An engineer who’s become a playwright – someone whom I’ve watched transform into her most comfortable self over the past ten years. I didn’t know until recently how much she’d gone through to experience her own transformation.
There’s a fable I have heard often in my childhood about a childless holy man who takes home a mouse to his wife – and with their powers, they transform her into a perfect little girl, the one they’ longed for and never had. She’s all things beautiful and wonderful, and brings joy to their lives.
When their daughter is of age, the holy man tries to interest her in marrying: first the grandest suitor, the Sun (she won’t have him because she’ll be burnt to a crisp). The Sun then suggests the next mightiest suitor, the Cloud (she won’t have him because she’s daunted by his thunder), who in turn recommends Wind (who’s always on the move, and what good is an absent husband?), who thinks of Mountain (so cold, made of stone!). Mountain in jest mentions the mere mouse, who’s not really worthy of consideration at all.
In exasperation, the holy man suggest that his daughter might as well marry the mouse – and she promptly agrees.
“I see myself in him – and he sees me.”
Which just goes to show you – like calls to like, no matter how it’s been transformed.
There’s too much noise of my own choosing – as in, I am choosing distraction in all its forms. Deliberately.
What I need is quiet for my mind and soul, and activity for my body. I choose exactly the opposite – safe, and easy.
Finding and holding my threshold of courage takes continual practice – daily, every moment – to repeatedly overcome, and gaining the momentum of deliberation.
Going to the public pool with my family was the beginning of my weekend, rain or shine, snow or sun. It was socialization with built-in barriers: whether floating on my back or diving deep, my family was close by, and I was left to my thoughts in the depths.
Friday evening swims came to an end when Dad noticed the families dwindling, and the number of unattended teenagers showing up. They were mostly good kids, but he couldn’t help but notice the boys’ horseplay, and the girls dry as a bone, draped over their towels without any other modest covering.
We never went swimming once I came of age, and I always thought it was because I had too much school work. I never did enjoy a pool or beach party, after those Fridays. Pool games, burgers and beer, and basking on a towel or in the water was fun – but what I really needed were compatriots who enjoyed the quiet gurgle of the underwater view, or the blue of the sky, endless as I watched from my float.