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May 31, 2019

Celebrating The Dual Existence Of First-Generation Immigrants Through Poetry

Atlanta-based cookbook author Nandita Godbole employs the sights, smells, tastes, sounds and touch of Mumbai to give a poetic voice to first-generation immigrants, whose dual identities are often subsumed into the narratives of their multicultural offsprings

Homesickness or nostalgia, place or place-attachment: call it what we may, but the hooks of our childhoods remain embedded in our souls no matter where we are. For those of us who have experienced migration or immigration, we are in two places at once — a silent dual existence. We find ways to console our spirits and nurture the longing that cannot be defined, knowing fully well that it will never be diminished. Our addresses, geographies, and connections to the rest of the world are tangible, yet ultimately inadequate, identifiers — mere units of space that contain our many layers. We can slide into a rabbit hole of memories while physically sitting in one location but truly ‘being’ elsewhere, as I did one spring morning, in Georgia.

MOGRAS, MANGOES and ME

When I saw the ivory-white mogra this morning
in the filtered sunlight of my dining room
blooming hesitantly, timidly yet its perfume unconstrained
waiting indoors for the warmth of the Georgia summers
to grow free, outdoors —
I remembered my nani’s corner garden in a hillside in Vikhroli, Bombay.
Nani’s garden was always filled with flowers,
fragrant, day and night.
I remembered nani’s magical hands
could bring dead twigs to life.
A lone shetur (mulberry) tree was outside her kitchen window,
I watched day and night for its tart berries to turn purple and sweet,
I knew they would stain my shirt, fingers and teeth.
I loved them.
And, around it was a lemongrass clump
whose leaves nani used to flavor her cha.
Lemongrass leaves that I would willingly bring her,
they were my excuse to look for those tart sweet purple shetur berries.

When I remembered lemongrass cha at nani’s house,
I remember the old pav-wala (bread seller),
a middle-aged man on an Atlas bicycle,
who sold fresh Burun pav,
Still warm from his oven,
nestled in a canvas bag hanging over his handlebar,
his bell sending a familiar, shrill ‘brrrring’ into the hillsides of Vikhroli at dawn.
Burun pav that slow-baked in his bhatti (oven), the night before.
He knew when I was visiting,
spotting my body leaning far out of the balcony looking for him,
calling him to attention, so he would not miss nani’s home.
And he, only too eager to unload half his warm wares at her doorstep.

Warm pav that we would toast with ghee on an old tava,
Ghee-toasted pav that we would spread soft salted butter on,
Ghee-toasted salted and buttered pav that we would then dunk into hot cups of lemongrass cha,
and slurp and gobble away.
Me, catching the stream of hot cha trickling down my arm with my tongue —
like no one was watching.
But nani watched, shaking her head in hapless acceptance,
she was a kid at heart.

When I remember gobbling away the soft succulent bits of Burun pav,
I remember being reminded not to run towards the pav-wala,
past the unruly parijataka tree that grew near the steps to the building.
It was the one that scattered its coral-throated fragrant flowers
about the time the pav-wala came at dawn.
Its flowers would scatter at the ‘doorstep’ of a cobra’s burrow.
She had just had her cobra babies that year
when I tripped and fell at her doorstep, and hurt my head.
Two black suspicious eyes glistened back at me from that dark, black abyss of the burrow.
I was 4, and that was scary.

When I remember nani’s parijataka tree, I remember the other one,
near my other grandmother’s house, at the Blue House by the sea,
near a rusty old gate, and a prickly karvanda bush that sported pink-and-white berries.
I was afraid that there would be a cobra nearby too.
Apparently, there was, gestured the mute temple keeper’s daughter, Mukki.
Their seeds were funny, of the parijataka tree —
they floated when I tossed them in a bucket of water.
But I loved their flowers, a cherished offering to Ganpati bappa.
Fragrant coral-tipped flowers for an orange, pot-bellied deity,
who, like me, loved to eat.

When I remembered those parijataka flowers,
I remembered how my mother had taught me to thread them,
one by one, carefully,
to make a garland for Ganpati bappa.
We would sit with a fine needle and thread,
on the stoop of that grandmother’s Blue House by the sea,
in the morning, when the flowers were still fresh.
I learned not to puncture the tender stalks,
because that would make them useless.

And when I remember of things that are useless,
I remember an old unfriendly voice telling me that I was useless,
because I was skinny,
because I put parijataka seed pods into a bucket of water,
because I liked to wander in orchard of the Blue House looking for fruits and berries.
The ‘orchard fruit’ was meant only for the markets, for others, to sell away.
And I was useless, for trying to eat them.
So being useless, I began to look for wild mangoes that no one wanted to buy.

When I remembered looking for useless wild mangoes,
I remembered the first time my brother and I took a slingshot to them.
They were tart and the crow had already tasted one.
We learned how to pick green ones,
and then hide them in small bales of hay,
so no one would know,
and we could secretly eat them when no one was looking.

When I think of useless wild mangoes ripening,
I remember discovering the dozens of mango saplings
on our new farm, away from the Blue House.
With as many mangoes I wanted to eat —
mangoes that we couldn’t wait to help harvest,
or make mango pulp and mango ice cream from.
I remember the old crank-operated ice-cream maker
that my nana had brought us,
the one we needed lots of rock salt for,
the one that required a lot of work,
to make ice-cream that never made it to the freezer,
because we ate it all.
Because we were allowed, it was all ours.

The thought of home-made mango ice cream
reminded me of the old ice-cream shop in a village market near the farm,
whose vanilla ice cream I still dream about.
The rolled ice cream in our American mall tastes similar.
The ice-cream shop near the farm, in the village market is good.
But not as good as the mango ice cream we would make by hand in the courtyard.

The village market is where I would often take our farm’s best produce to sell.
It was where I hated selling our best mangoes cheap —
because they were the tastiest in the region,
because they grew on our farm,
they were Alphonso mangoes, still the best in the land.

In that village market I remember fisherwomen
who haggled over buying flowers for their thick and dark hair: mogras, chameli
and roses.
They would even buy gaudy bunches of bougainvilleas,
and harass the poor gajra-wali (hair-garland seller) over a few rupees.
She sold delicate gajras of chameli and mogra buds that bloomed at night.

My father would offer to buy me large bunches if I wanted,
but the bunches were too heavy for my hair, and become useless.
Instead, I would pin only one or two mogras in my braids.

These mogras were just like those blooming innocently this morning,
on a dwarf little potted plant in my dining room,
basking in the spring sunlight, that peeks over our neighbor’s tall fence.
Mogras that may have family, like me, living many oceans away.
Mogras that could be in garlands of temple offerings, in a young girl’s palm or in a fisherwoman’s bun.
Mogras that remind me of my nani’s garden,
her lemongrass cha and the succulent hot buttered Burun pav,
the unruly parijataka tree and its fragrant flowers,
the mango trees and the many kinds of ice cream,
of that time I was told that I was useless,
and of the many orchards, gardens and lives I have lived and wandered in, since.

The pendulum of ache swings between two places, never stopping long enough to be satisfied with one before returning to the first. Tethered to the Eternal, this pendulum of ache only exists because of the unwavering rhythmic movement between two: two places, two souls, two homes, and within it, two people. Without one there is no other. When one ceases to exist, so does the other. And then, the (tethered) time simply stops.

Epigraph, Ten Thousand Tongues: Secrets of a Layered Kitchen, Nandita Godbole, 2018

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