Mummy Ji yelled from the kitchen over the fan’s whirring buzz, breaking the tune of Blondie’s “Call Me”–it had been in my head the entire day.
“Raj, neechai ayo! Nermal and I need your help.”
Her voice returned me to the smell of sautéed onions. I had lingered too long at the top of the stairs, letting the mirror captivate my imagination–all I needed was Debbie’s nose and red lips. But more imminent was the plight of my jeans which could not be sacrificed to the thodka. I quickly slammed the last bedroom door upstairs and made my way back to the kitchen. It was time to prepare the gajrela. “Grate the carrots for me bhetha,” Mummy Ji said in passing.
I took out the new Cuisinart food processor that Nermal had purchased for Mummy Ji and hauled the bag of carrots to the kitchen table. I sat myself next to my nephew Dev, who was chughana-ing the dhal at Nani Ji’s command. “You need nimble fingers and a keen eye to work through lentils,” she would tell me. “You must not let any small pebbles, discoloured lentils, pods and imperfections get past you–that is imperative.” Dev was a master. I saw myself there kneeling on the ground. I felt a jolt of pain in my left knee; they never hurt when I was his age, even after spending hours chughana-ing dahl with Harry.
Harry was getting married soon. My parents had fixed him up with one of the Johal girls. I’ll be the last one at home after the wedding–hai! The tip of my ring finger was bleeding. I had cut myself on the blade trying to clean out the bits of carrots that had attached themselves to the machine. I only lost a few drops of blood to the machine. The Johal family had built the Taj Mahal of Stockton. They came to the Wild Wild West in search of something. Papa could tell you more about what they were looking for; apparently they had told him one evening at the bar downtown. The first Johal came to the continent in 1906 on a great big boat called the Komagata Maru. It didn’t pan out, so he tried again a few years later and landed somewhere along the coast of California and got to work on those railways that were supposed to unite everyone–all for Amreeka. Telecommunications. Railroads. Nature. Military. Industry. Raunchy manliness. The Johal family found their way. My mother told me that there were seven Johal tabhar spread across Northern California. Stockton was their home base–it was where they built their Gurdwara. Growing up, I would spend every Saturday morning learning Punjabi with the Johal girls at that Gurdwara. I learned how to write the alphabet and make out the difference between siharis and biharis, girls and boys, fruits and vegetables. Nermal had been trying to get Dev to go to Punjabi class but he wouldn’t listen to her. He would have to learn if he wanted to have a relationship with his Nani Ji. The Johal kids spoke Punjabi–even though their family had been here for nearly a century.
Kulwinder Massi Ji was here for the wedding. She made the best gajrela–I don’t know why my mother was even attempting to have me make it. Everyone knew that Kulwinder Massi made the best gajrela. I was so jealous. She would be coming over at 4:00pm–which really meant 5:00pm–with the rest of my mother’s side of the family. The Nanki Shak was a grand event where the tables would be turning. Papa’s side of the family was supposed to serve my Nanke. The only problem was that Dad’s family wasn’t here; they had all gone back to India except for my Thaya Ji. They had swallowed my mother’s dowry, labour and love and left her with nothing but children. Mummy Ji had lost it with Papa a few months ago when I was about to apply to college. I was going to apply to three colleges, but we didn’t have the money to pay for all of the applications because Papa was sending half of his pay cheque to his parents in India so that they could send my Chacha Ji to university. Mummy Ji stopped cooking for him. A few days later I heard the shattering of glass and found Mummy Ji crying in the kitchen, hurled over the sink. Where had Papa gone?
I took the grated carrots to the counter and dried them off, looking out the window. I dazed off, following the few cars that passed our house. Harry commuted to work–he would drive our pale blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme to the IBM offices in San Jose everyday. It was about an hour and a half drive from our home in Stockton. When he got the job, Papa handed him the keys, saying, “The ghadi is yours now.” I went back to taking the bus that day and catching rides with Harry whenever the opportunity arose. I cursed Papa. He wanted me to be his darling bhetha; educated but silent, obedient but decisive, submissive and oppressed. He had been looking to get me married soon. A few weeks ago, I joked about marrying the Johal boy. Papa and Mummy Ji didn’t laugh. The room went silent. I could not grab the Great order by its swinging dick like that. No. No, if that happened, poor Papa would lose everything–he would lose his Great household. He wouldn’t be able to collect his daughter-in-law and that wouldn’t do. She was key; the final and finest ornament for his turban. I would leave a Great daag on his turban when I left. I would shatter every last ornament.
The ghee started sizzling in the pan. How much longer would it take? The wedding was set for the end of August–the bride’s parents had managed to book the Gurdwara in Yuba City. This way Nani Ji would be able to attend the wedding. A few years ago she had fallen and broken her hip which meant that traveling long distances was no longer an option. She had been cleaning her daughter-in-law’s wedding outfit and had hung it up outside to dry in the crisp fall air. She must have missed the graying skies and the first drops that hit the ground. Soon the dark wetness coming from the sky had subsumed the laal duputta. Apparently Nani Ji ran to save her son’s marriage, but tripped on a loose ithi and fell head-first on the concrete. She shattered. When I asked her about it, she told me about how vividly she remembered watching the duputta slowly subsume itself in bright white and orange flames. Mami Ji wasn’t there that day, she had gone to San Jose to visit her friend Mary. The carrots were starting to wilt–all of the water had evaporated.
The true dance would come with the milk. I asked my mother how much dhudh to add into the pot–500 ml? 700ml? She looked at me dumbfounded; these colonial instruments meant nothing to her. Massi Ji published an authentic Indian cookbook for the gore a few years ago. I tried her recipe for dhal, but I just could not get it right. My hands were not made for the recipe. Apparently in Britain the white people eat Indian food like it’s Chinese takeout. They go for a curry after the pub. But it wasn’t real Indian food that they would eat, just something that destitute Mowgli-type child who slipped onto the right ship from Bombay would throw together in the kitchen for a few pounds every week. How horrible.
I adjusted the stovetop to a low simmer and started to slowly stir in the milk and sugar. On their wedding, Harry would share a glass of milk with his bride. They would exchange jhut for the first time. I remember when I kissed Lou for the first time. It was the same year as the genocide–Nani Ji’s brother had been killed by the Hindu nationalist government. 1984 or 11th grade. He drove me to this ridge just outside of town during lunch. We were sitting on the hood of his car when I felt his hard cock press up against my thigh, his shallow breath on my neck, his tongue opening my mouth. Our jhut.
I broke open the cardamom. The smell filled my heart as I thought about my mother’s hands, working in the kitchen, crushing the elaichi with sonf every morning for chai. I looked down at my own hands. There was a burn mark on my left arm from when I was eleven. Nermal had just married and Mummy Ji needed to go back to India for a funeral so I was the only one left at home to make roti. The one morning, I had been home alone and tried to make myself aloo gobi di sabji, but when I went to put in the turmeric, I slipped and tumbled onto the thava. The thava was a modern appliance. In a land far, far away, mother Modernity crept along the dirt roads, finding itself into the fields of Punjabi and deep into the durham atah that our lok used to nourish themselves for years. And now it was in my home. Punishing me. Burning itself into my body. The burn mark is a battle scar; a reminder to never get too close.
The milk was evaporating with haste. Dev was pulling at my top as I struggled to stir in the cardamon in time, “Raj Mama, can we go to the park?” My mom snapped at him, “Harek din, you go to the park.”
Earlier that day Dev had cried in my bedroom. He missed Harry. “Last week he told me to start calling him Mama Ji and now he isn’t here to take me to the park. Why does he have to get married?” Harry had come home late the last time Dev had visited. He was on a date with the Johal Girl. They had gone to the art cinema in Oakland to see a showing of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Papa had gone with Thaya Ji the week before and raved about how great Aamir Khan’s performance was in the film. Aamir Khan was Great.
Mom’s bellowing voice cut in–“Aj mehnu twadi madhat chaidi and you want to go play with the ball in the park? Here. You can shilena the cucumber.” She gave Dev a pairing knife and set him up at the kitchen table.
I had only been to the cinema once before; it was with school. Our history class had gone to see “The Colour Purple.” I remember asking my mom for money so that I could buy some treats, but we were struggling. Papa had been injured at work and was forced to take a leave of absence from his job. He worked at a tool-dye downtown. When I was fourteen, Papa had come home from work with a bandage over his left eye. He looked tired as usual from a day of heaving metal around. One of the other men had not been cutting the metal according to regulation and a carving of aluminum flew into Papa’s eye. My mother had bitten away half her bottom lip by the time Papa had finished the story. Within moments she dropped to the ground in front of the two portraits of Guru Nanak Dev Ji and Guru Gobind Singh Ji that greeted you as you walked into the house. She murmured the naam. I looked her kneeling there. Waheguru. Slowly her voice dissipated and she stopped calling out to Bhabhi Ji. Harry and I went to court with Papa–we helped translate so that the firm would pay for the hospital bills.
With one hand I reached for the knife and started to cut the gajrela on our new cutting board. The colour started to run deep into the white plastic. It had lost its true colour for the moment. I would have to spend a while to clean it, to remove the rang, to restore it to its lost self. I took a piece of gajrela and placed it in my mouth. The crunch of the cashews, the sweetness of the carrots, and the memories of my mother consumed me. Today her family would come to celebrate her. My Mummy Ji.
“Raj, hurry up and change into your kurta”
Wiping the ghee from my hands, I climbed up the stairs and fell onto the bed. I grabbed onto my pillow and held it near my side. I breathed in. The pillow smelled. A mix of Lou and the lingering thodka. I was aching for him. For the touch of his hands–rough from working at his dad’s factory after school. For the heat that emanated from his body. For the pyaar. But that would not happen until after the wedding. I was seventeen when he colonized the depths of my body and now we were about to elope–about to make our own Great American dream. I would wear one of my mother’s saris on our wedding. The sheer baby blue one that is covered in mirrors. It will ward off the evil eye. Burnt incense. Kajal behind the ears. A short prayer. Mirrors. That is the only recipe I need to know.
San Francisco awaited. There was a nightingale in the Tenderloin screaming:
Aap Shayar to Nahin
Aap Shayar to Nahin, magar ae haseen
Your slept with that mundha
I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. “My parents would have never allowed me to be this khulee when I was your age.”
I wondered whether we would circumcise our child. I imagine my parents went through the motions with my brother and me: Let’s just keep his foreskin. Should we cut it off? Your parents would want us to keep it. No, get rid of it! It’s against our dharam. Circumcise the boy. Listen to the doctor, he’s samjohna you: “It’s a common surgical procedure that we recommend for all our patients.” Dr. Jenkins had been our family doctor for years. When I went for a pregnancy test, he had agreed to keep it between us. The test was negative. On the day of the test he had to step out; his voice was sharp and cut through the silence: “I’ll have to leave now. A close friend of mine has fallen ill.” He looked hollowed, winded, as if something was about to colonize every cell in his body.
I slipped my right hand into my jean pockets. A crumpled paper held me back–I took it out, it was a small photo of Nermal and I at the beach last summer. Lou had gone to Boston to visit family that summer. Together we were Zeenat Aman and Amitabh Bachchan, American and Punjabi, cut and uncut; were we together? I couldn’t look back now. I would have to leave with Lou as soon as I finished my diploma. My stomach churned–I could not bear watching every woman at the gurdwara prey on my mother after I left. They would laugh and look, prod and poke, berate and batter. It would start with the murmurs:
I haven’t seen Raj in a while. I heard he left with that gora. I told them not to let him play with the Johal girls. At least he didn’t marry a chamar like Neha's daughter. The shame. I saw Raj with the gora at the mall in Stockton–you think he would have the decency to leave! They should have named him Rajneet.
I pulled myself from the bed and started parsing through the one thousand and one outfits in my closets. Thaya Ji had just bought me a bright green kurta for the wedding from India. It was tacky. I flicked past a few suits and found my mother’s golden yellow lengha that she wore to my cousin’s wedding when I was seven. After the maiyan, I remember sneaking into her room and "borrowing" it. It didn’t fit. It would never quite fit.
I was taking too long, Mummy Ji would be angry. I needed to wash the crystal platter for the gajrela. I saw the kurta that I had worn to the gurdwara last weekend on the floor in my closet. I was sure it emanated the smell of thodka. Without a second thought, I slipped into it. It was bright orange with embroidery that Crayola would call cobalt blue. It was gajrela, with a side of blueberries. It was the Yuba City Gurdwara, with a side of Punjab.
Our stairs were carpeted in a putrid light pink, so it didn’t hurt too much when I slipped on the stairs. No one had heard. The pain was sinking in. Dukhi. Nermal walked in with a tray of samosas from the local shop. “Raj, I need you in the kitchen. Can you add some yogurt to the chutney?”
Mint chutney was cooling, refreshing, and piquant. I pushed the yogurt through a cheesecloth before adding it to the mint chutney. It would make the chutney seem homemade; this was one of Mummy Ji’s best kept secrets. The secret wasn’t written anywhere, but kept between us girls. I stopped for a moment and looked at Nermal and Mummy Ji. I looked at their love and toil, their hands and secrets, their paths and destinies, their fathers and husbands. They were not mine.
I took the crystal platter from the back of the cupboard next to the oven. It was a gift from Massi Ji to my mother. It was Waterford crystal from Britain. The highest quality available. I looked at the design that was carved into the crystal, running my fingers along the paisley design on the bottom. In class you learn that the Paisley design was a patented British invention. Dukhi.
The gajrela wouldn't fit on the plate. I stuffed two pieces into my mouth and starting forcing the rest onto the plate. This wedding would be my last chance to learn how to paint my hands with mehndi. I was looking forward for the mehndi party. We would sing boliyan and be happy. This was a boy’s wedding, so we would celebrate with real pomp. Nermal’s wedding was a lot different. She left us when I was eleven. On the day of the wedding, I would not let go of her when we had to say goodbye. My khada got caught on the sequins of her dupatta. When I was younger she would hold me and say: “Ajee meri na meri ajee.” The tears flowed from our eyes. They tasted sweet. Another kind of jhut I guess. I would not look back–it was time for Nermal to go.
But now she was here. Standing in the kitchen with us. Ajee.
The doorbell rang. I looked at the portrait of Guru Nanak Dev Ji for guidance, but all I heard was my mother’s voice ringing in my ears: “Neemhi pao.” I opened the door. Massi Ji stood there with a plate of gajrela in her hands.
They were the Greats. Massi Ji and Mummy Ji and Nermal.
I heard Mummy Ji coming behind me. Holding out the gajrela for my Massi Ji, she gleamed. “You need to taste the gajrela that Raj made. I won't need a daughter-in-law if he keeps this up.”