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Of Brown Voices And Apple Pie

An Indian-American Thanksgiving dinner after Trump…

07/02/2017 1:29 PM IST | Updated 08/02/2017 9:11 AM IST
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I live in Atlanta, Georgia with two places to call home: India and the US.

Like countless others, I was blindsided by the direction my second home was headed towards, the multifaceted, multicoloured nation. That November evening, I struggled as dull fear settled—I was scared in my home of 10 years. We had experienced hatred for our brownness in our backyard, I was afraid it might return. The outcome of 11/9 did not reflect a preference or interpretation of policy but felt like contempt, an attack towards culture: language, religious books, places, perhaps even humanity. Scars were uncovered, more created and identities scrutinised. Proponents of veiled discriminations had united, the tide of despondency rose separating "us" and "them", creating deeper divides in a country of immigrants. We no longer were a collective of people, but pawns.

I discovered my touch was unimportant. My American child with her Indian heritage was making her first American apple pie. That was important.

Thanksgiving came as a perfect distraction. Food became our temporary obsession, a reassuring medium to drown sorrows—in wine, chocolate and baking. Everyone looked up grandma's recipes for pies, planned familiar family gatherings for comfort.

But my grandmother never made a pie. So, my 13-year old daughter decided to, her first, from a book older than herself, a simple recipe using flour, water, butter, apples, sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice. Simple things for an American pie. When she forgot one ingredient and the pastry crust looked funny I helped fix it. My kitchen was covered in millions of tiny sugar granules. I desperately wanted to clean, add my touch, but she was ushering a new tradition. I reminded myself: Thanksgiving celebrates both old and new traditions, letting each evolve organically, compassionately, nostalgically, without the insistence of correctness. I discovered my touch was unimportant. My American child with her Indian heritage was making her first American apple pie. That was important. It was just one part of her identity, alongside her dad's rasam and rice, or ras-poori from her nanima's (grandmother's) farm and kitchen in India. That afternoon our table was filled with Indian-inspired American dishes—green beans sautéed with Kalonji and garlic, tandoori-styled lamb chops, sweet potatoes pan-fried in ghee and a cranberry chutney. We were living and eating in two places at once. But the pie remained a simple apple pie made in our suburban American home, by a pair of inexperienced but loving young American hands, with an Indian heart.

There are many other troubled and louder voices. So, until you are ready to see and listen to the "brown" voices, I shall wait, like a good Indian girl.

That evening, our neighbourhood streets that had been both reassuring and unsettling were temporarily vacant, still, paused, like those Sundays when Ramayan or Mahabharat played on Doordarshan. We had gathered in private comforting spaces, healing, navigating the altered state, returning to what united and sustained us. In our varying states of disbelief, we returned to two solaces: family and food.

I recorded this:

"I have deep thoughts about being brown (in the South).

Brown: an in-between colour that does not matter unless it is either to support or refute a traumatic or dramatic circumstance, a convenient pawn, neither black nor white, just a shade of brown. The colour of average, or the average of colours?

Some people think that brown does not matter, it does not exist.

You can't hear the brown in my voice on the phone, not from my grocery cart, car or credit card. Neither from my electricity bills nor soaps and detergents. Not from my pies or PBJ sandwiches in my child's lunch, a movie stub in my coat or my bar tab.

Though it is there, you cannot see. Because I don't let you.

Why? Because you walked a step back when I first said 'Hello.' And also, when I offered my assistance. Not because you cannot see but the assumptions when you first heard my name were in the awkward silences afterward. You unknowingly butchered my name, one with fewer vowels than 'Mississippi', or 'Albuquerque', but I was not going to correct you. When all else failed, you invited me to join your church. I merely smiled politely like a good Indian girl.

Apparently, we have nothing in common, neither food, lives nor religion—except all the things we share.

I have deep thoughts about being brown in the South but shall wait my turn. There are many other troubled and louder voices. So, until you are ready to see and listen to the 'brown' voices, I shall wait, like a good Indian girl."

***

Writing it freed me from the shackles of grief. I was energised to combine my two loves—food and writing—into my third cookbook: Not For You: Family Narratives of Denial & Comfort Food. The story is like me, based in two places—starting in India, ending in the US. It reflects on inherent, subversive cultural patterns of denial in four generations of our family, as circumstances, patriarchy, custom, religion and social assumptions dictated the course of personal narratives. It draws from true events when denial and intolerance became sadistic amusement and like our modern refuge in cookies, chocolate or wine, revisits cherished old-fashioned comfort foods that strengthened and sustained spirits.

My table has room for both Indian and American food but not for associated judgements, biases or prejudices.

Food unites, but if religion, language or culinary biases are valued over individuals, it is not puristical, but oppressive judgment hiding behind covert divisiveness. My table has room for both Indian and American food but not for associated judgements, biases or prejudices. It strives to remind me of ordinary people who aspired and inspired others to be extraordinary, so I can celebrate individuality and uniqueness to soar above the coloured noise.

~~~

Nandita Godbole

Betty Crocker Apple Pie Recipe

Nandita's variation: Use butter (not shortening). Add 1 tsp. of vanilla, candied/grated fresh ginger or dried cranberries in filling. Fiji or Granny Smith apples perform best. Serve warm with vanilla ice-cream.

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