By Ryan D’Souza
Atop an inverted utensil sits a marble mortar, in which the pestle holds my phone straight up so that my mother can supervise via Skype the thinly cut onions completely out of view. As I chop away in my kitchen in Tampa, my mother in Dubai delivers instructions on how to prepare our family’s green masala mutton curry. The curry belongs to my family for various reasons: it is prepared to celebrate every occasion; we’ve never come across the same curry at any restaurant; and, probably the most important reason, my grandmother taught it to her children. As my mother recalls the recipe step-by-step without clear direction on how much exactly is “some jeera,” I realize that what I’m preparing is not just food. It is an inter-generational history kept alive through memories.
Food to me is nostalgic. It reminds me of home. It satisfies my longing for a faraway place. Food to my mother is reminiscent. It indulges her in stories which she narrates to her child with the hope that they are remembered. These food stories are always about her mother, the same way my food stories are always about my mother. For both mother and son, food is about memories.
As the coriander stems crunch under my knife, my mother once again tells me stories about my grandmother. There is always a discontinuity in my mother’s narration; her stories are seldom linear. But these stories nevertheless connect three generations with my mother as a mediator between a grandmother and grandson who never met. My grandmother was born in Mangalore, a port city in colonial Mysore. She was born into a family of farmers, so she toiled the land for sustenance. In the wake of freedom from colonial rule, her family’s ancestral source of income was snatched away in land appropriation programs. With nothing to do, and nowhere to go, she traveled to Bombay where she worked odd jobs and bootlegged local alcohol “to put food on the table” for her growing family.
With my mother migrating to Dubai, and I relocated to Tampa, we both see ourselves moving away from Bombay and Mangalore. Our transnational movements are not just about distance. It is also about our complete removal from a place that is supposed to be “home.” When our sense of who we are in terms of our clothes, language, and altogether nativity is no longer clear, we forage for memories that offer our identities some stability. Our memories become repositories of all things cultural.
In between all the wedding gossip, my mother continues with her vague measurements, and instructs me to add “few pudina leaves.” I interrupt to clarify, “so five mint leaves?” In these random exchanges, I realize the difference in our languages as we together attempt to cook the same dish. Between my mother’s Bombay Hindi and my god-knows-what English, we’ve both forsaken Konkani as our mother tongue. I wonder if this recipe will survive the changes in our language – from Konkani to Hindi to English? The dishes we cook, serve, and eat are reflective of our backgrounds. The aromas, flavors, and morsels reveal something about us, and our place in the world. Food and the memories attached to it are geographical as well as historical. But what can be said about a dish we call “curry”? That colonial label is not (and never was) an adequate descriptor for anything. My mother’s transnational maternal instinct relieves these anxieties about culture and mint leaves and convinces me, “You’ll figure it out. It is in you.”
We often think of memories as something that is memorized; the external that is internalized. However, if memories at any point are external to us, they become widely accessible. Memories are indeed relational, but they are also personal. It is our personal memories that connect our hopes from the past to the present and eventually to the future. When we think of memories as in us, like an inter-generational history of sorts, we claim stake to the meanings that are ascribed to language, land, and all other things cultural. The thing about memories is that, much like food, it sustains us.
To wrap up the gastronomical musings, I add the staple of most South Indian cooking – coconut milk. As the white twirls with the dark green, my apartment starts to smell like home. This bouquet of spices survived at least three generations so far. My pores absorb the smell as if the pungency nourishes my skin. The flavor teleports me to another place. But where – Dubai, Bombay, Mangalore? I leave the green masala mutton curry to simmer.
In lieu of a simple buh-bye, my mother runs through a list of family members whom I should call as soon as she hangs up. Before concluding our call, she adds that my grandmother would have been pleased with me. As my apartment starts to warm up, I wonder if that’s my grandmother’s amused transnational spirit.
Ryan D’Souza is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of South Florida. His research on desi pop culture pretentiously theorizes everything the community holds dear. Connect with him on Instagram: @rayanarron.