Eat With Your Hands

Indian_Spices

My mother always implored me to use my hands: speak with them, fight with them, eat with them.  “Food tastes better that way,” she’d say, pinching a mound of lamb biryani between her fingers, bringing it to my mouth. To mask my displeasure at Indian food, we pretended that each bite was an American dessert.

“Open wide for apple pie,” she’d say. She’d grab another: “ooh, this one’s your favorite—tiramisu.” The sincere delight I took in this semi-tragic ruse cannot be overstated.

Left to my own devices, I would over-season my food—dousing fiery curries with generous pours of lemon juice, throwing entire handfuls of salt on the plate—much to the chagrin of my father, who typically finished what I could not.

Life wasn’t always hand-to-mouth. Being Indian in America felt novel enough, and being Indian in California came with its own idiosyncrasies. Some nights my parents brought me to the homes of different Indian engineers, where they and their wives would gather to play Risk, drink American beer or scotch and watch Saturday Night Live. Meanwhile I was corralled with the other kids, from whom I felt apart. Not because I was somehow more “Americanized”—I had no Indian friends, my parents were secular and, unless they were angry, only spoke English—but because I was an outcast anyway: brash, animated, a little enamored of myself.

In contrast these kids were exceedingly well-behaved. It would’ve been wrong to see them as mousy or repressed. Their carefully articulated opinions were meted out with the consideration and cunning of seasoned politicians. You’d be surprised how calculated some eight-year-olds can be.

The indisputable, outward fact of our Indianness tied us together. To be young and feel so persistently uncomfortable in your own skin, and then to meet several yous—it’s an incredible experience. In no other situation would we have tolerated one another, but many childhood friendships are predicated on much less.

Together we could commiserate. Our mothers wore sarees to the beach, and our fathers might untuck their dress shirts if they were feeling frisky. We spoke a strange type of English that the British had long abandoned. Our last name was our “good name,” our cousins cousin-sisters or cousin-brothers and where was the baseball bat?—in the dickey of the Toyota, of course.

All that was fine to my non-Indian friends, possibly endearing to the kids who didn’t get it. But our food, our food was cause for offense. “Does your house smell like curry?,” asked my friend’s pretty half-Asian girlfriend. “I hate the way it smells. Why do Indian people smell like curry?”

Because our spirit burns, thought my melodramatic teenage subconscious. If you’re lucky, so will yours.

“TO EAT A CURRY IS TO TRACE THE HISTORY OF THE SUBCONTINENT.”

I should’ve asked her to clarify. I’ve never been clear on what constitutes a curry. It has no technical or strict definition: some curries are wet, others dry, some spicy, some impossibly bland. Some are even produced in Japan. The word comes from Tamil, a South Indian language, and nowhere is the dish more enjoyable than on London’s Brick Lane, where one of several Bangladeshi restaurants prepare the types of curries more commonly found in Pakistan, typically for crowds of Anglo-Saxon drunks.

To eat a curry is to trace the history of the subcontinent. Still it’s one of those words that evokes a personal reaction, a word whose meaning has been lost to globalization, like “New York pizza” or “street photography.”

At home, we didn’t eat the typical North Indian dishes, like chicken tikka masala—a composite of mostly foreign origins, as the tomato was a Portuguese import, and the curry prepared to satisfy the palateless British—or kebabs, but fried fish and lentils.

Once my mother made tandoori chicken. It was a fool’s errand from the beginning: we did not own a tandoor, the clay oven used to bake tandoori chicken. Her tandoori chicken was instead broiled in the oven and left out to cool, finally yielding the chicken a crimson and earthy color. The leftovers were used for my lunch at school. At noon, I hesitated, not having any idea what awaited me in my Igloo.

“What is that?” inquired Travis, a child so fair and blonde he seemed to be fading away.

“It’s tandoori chicken. It’s good, try some.”

“Uh, I’ll pass. It looks like it has a heartbeat. Look, Shona’s food is still alive!”

Everything Indian is alive. You’re dead and gone.

To be Indian—to be an upper caste Hindu—was to be fed a certain amount of propaganda: our culture was superior, our warlike ancestors descended from the heavens in golden chariots, vanquishing the indigenous heathenry and bestowing all manner of grace and good fortune on the subcontinent. That seemed dramatically at odds with history, but the romantic ethos made me swell—could I not be heroic? Typical male, typical ego, typical defensive immigrant.

“I want to live all the time in my fantasy infinity/There I will never be abandoned/There I’ll have a handle against everything….”

The author’s parents, feeding each other at their wedding.

*

Now I am a full grown adult. I know this because some days my mother texts me to confirm the fact, some listless, one-way correspondence designed to verify the unthinkable. Something like:  “You’re an adult now, don’t you know…,” before signing off with “Love Mom,” or “This is MOM,” or sometimes, “LOVE ALWAYS MOM.”

Love Always, Mom. Love, Always Mom. Mom forever with love.

Most days I eat one or two meals alone, typically something I can take in my hands and thereby relate to: a couple tacos or a panini, perhaps some meat on a stick. Food tastes better that way.  On the days when I am away from my own family, a beautiful eight-year-old boy and his mercurial, seductive mother, I find my way to an expensive restaurant for dinner. The attention one attracts when eating alone is almost comic, as each passing glance warrants new inquiry: “you there, are you OK all by yourself? Will you really be eating those tapas by yourself? They are meant to be shared, it is the tradition, haven’t you heard?”

I am comfortable in my solitude. I long gave up trying to be the center of attention—a problematic place for an only child, so used to being alone and silent that when confronted with an audience I’d practically explode.

Narcissism doesn’t tarnish the luxury of never having to share. At least that’s how I comforted myself. These days I am less sure. Recently I caught myself trying to mimic my mother’s behavior, playing a game of culinary make-believe at dinnertime. And I realized he had no reason to pretend, and neither did I: any reason to share—meals, experiences, love—can and should be cherished.

Shona Sanzgiri (@fauxrealist) is a writer and photographer living in California. His work has appeared in GQ, Paris Review, Interview and ADULT