Mom is cooking my favorite dishes, saag paneer (spinach and homemade cheese), tandoori chicken, aloo ki roti (potato stuffed flat bread) and chutneys (tamarind and mint). It is rather amusing that this is MY kitchen, yet she has taken control and turned me into her sous chef.
As she cooks I take fastidious notes in my recipe book and marvel that despite not measuring, Mom’s food tastes precisely consistent. She has standardized her skill into an art form. I certainly can’t say that about my cooking and I’m a pretty decent protégé.
“You know when I came from India, Dad told me to bring spices and lentils because there were no Indian groceries stores in Minneapolis,” Mom says. “So between your silk saris you packed paprika and masoor dal?” I ask. “Yes,” Mom replies. “What happened when you ran out?” I ask. “Oh, then several of us pooled our money, made a list and mailed our order to New York City. No other City had Indian grocery stores.” It is amazing how much things have changed.
Her story reminds me of a filmstrip we watched in fourth grade about Nagaland, a remote place in India inhabited by a primitive tribe who carried spears and wore animal skins. When the film finished, horrified, I raised my hand to reassure everyone that I was Indian and had been New Delhi several times and not to worry this depiction of India was inaccurate. Mrs. Knutson explained that I couldn’t possibly know everything about India. Very popular and blonde Jenny Nelson frowned at me, and Tommy Larson said, “Your dad has a bone through his nose? Gross.”
I remember feeling like someone had stolen my dignity. That night I went home and while Mom cooked dinner I asked about the Nagas. Mom dusted red and yellow spices over green beans and white potatoes and explained Mrs. Knutson was wrong, but I didn’t need to correct her. As my teacher she had a superior position in my life. Then I asked Mom to stop wearing saris to the mall. She kept cooking and said she wouldn’t let America embarrass us because we came from India. But I persisted and clarified technically I was American; being born in Minnesota guaranteed me that right. “No you’re Indian,” she finally said.
Sometimes I forget that I was not the only one being desi in a homogenous state. And I wonder how many times I hurt Mom’s feelings just like Mrs. Knutson, Jenny and Tommy did mine.