It is August 27, 1997 and two hours after I arrive in America for the first time, I’m in a van, accepting food from strangers. A tanned, tall, ad-model-cute student offers his bag of chips to the passengers in the van. He’s young and confident, unlike me. I am an anxious, Fresh Off the Boat, F1 visa-student, desperate not to appear uncool. The chip I fish out of the bag is a large triangle that tastes overwhelmingly of cheese and leaves bright orange dust on my fingers. I’ve never tasted anything like it. Later, I find out what they’re called.
Nacho Cheese Doritos, it turns out, is the first food I eat in America.
Two hours later, the van drops me off on the silent campus of Temple University, Philadelphia, and, as I watch its lights blink away into the dark, I’m overwhelmed by the thought that I am utterly alone. No one knows me in this country. The loneliness that thought opens up in me will, a few weeks later, make me do another thing I’ve never done before: seek the help of a psychologist.
I teach at New York University now and in the first few weeks after school opened in September, I notice the freshly-arrived young Indian students on campus, another cohort setting out on the Great American Adventure. It’s the quiet ones I pick out, the worried-looking girl alone at a desk in Bobst library, shoulders hunched, her restrained body language familiar. A couple of weeks ago, with the start of a new semester looming, my 21-year-old cousin, newly arrived from Kerala, calls from Los Angeles where he is about to start school.
“How are things?” I ask.
“Things are okay,” he says, sounding subdued. We talk for a few minutes and while he affects the bravado that young men cling to, I can hear it in his voice — the loneliness of being far from family in this new, bewildering country. “Do you cook Indian food?” I ask him.
“Not really,” he says.
“You should,” I say.
When I move to America as a student, I have had a more westernised upbringing than most. I’ve grown up with my journalist father in five different state capitals — places so different in dialects, custom and lifestyles that it is like living in five different countries. This peripatetic life had taught me to navigate the cheerful chaos that is India with ease, and prepared me, I blithely assume, for any place in the world. What’s more, I am fluent in English — unlike so many of the other foreigners I meet at Orientation. It is the language I dream in, the language of the books stuffed into every available space in our house, the language of the American films my father and I have obsessed over for as long as I can remember.
I’m in Philadelphia to get an MA in Creative Writing and I jump in at the deep end. Three days a week, I stand my 5foot self up in front of towering basketball players and teach Remedial English. I take classes where I argue with my professors over post-modernism’s relevance to post-colonial societies. I read 500 pages a week of (Gayatri Chakravorty) Spivak, (Jacques) Derrida and (William) Faulkner. I even manage to write a short story. For all outward appearances, I am an efficient graduate machine.
It’s my interior life that’s a mess. I don’t eat. I can’t sleep.
My roommate, lovely, generous, Jamie, takes me to Olive Garden. She introduces me to pasta Alfredo. I struggle to swallow forkfuls of the noodles smothered in cheese sauce, then give up.
My teenage years are marked by days in dusty trains that slowly crawl down the country’s spine. When the train stops at a station, my father rushes my brother and me out to sample whatever is being offered in the stalls: lurid orange jalebis, sticky with syrup, in Gwalior, flaming hot fried mirchi bhajis in Gudur, mutton biryani wrapped in banana leaf in Palakkad. It doesn’t matter that my mother has packed enough food in steel tiffins carriers to get us through a nuclear winter — chapatis made with milk so that they would stay soft and pliant for days, stuffed karelas, bhindis fried to a crisp. We still had to taste…well, India.
Every new place we arrived in was a chance to have a culinary adventure. The day I landed in Chandigarh from Goa, my father, who had gone ahead to set up house while I stayed behind for my tenth grade finals, loaded me on to his old Vespa and took me to Sector 19 and Inder Da Dhaba.
“They make lassi in washing machines,” he said, wonderstruck by the ingenuity. We ate ragda pattis and cauliflower stuffed paranthas to go with the lassi. That is my introduction to Chandigarh.
Every time we relocate, my mom falls to the task of mastering the new cuisine with manic urgency. In Goa, there is Mary aunty who shows her how to soak dried fruit in rum in November for the plum cake that will appear at Christmas time crowned in blue flames like something out of Charles Dickens. In Hyderabad, she wrests Shanti aunty’s secret Telengana recipe from her: mutton simmered for hours in chillies and oil until it melts off the bone. In Chandigrah, Mom sets up a barter system with Bunty’s mom : in exchange for lessons on dosas, she is taught sarson da saag — with us kids conscripted to stirring the damn pot for hours until our arms ached. Every new place is tied up with new culinary encounters, the magic of which I celebrate years later by inventing songs about batata vadas in a children’s book I write.
But I couldn’t tell you what I ate those first months as a student in America, although there’s food everywhere. I learn that Americans eat at all hours. At our morning meetings, there are muffins oozing blueberries, donuts glazed in chocolate, cakes glistening with butter cream. I don’t eat a thing. Who eats sweet things for breakfast?
It as if I have lost something vital, some bright yearning I have always had to grab up the world in fistfuls, wallow in sensations, in colours, in art and music and food. I’m not sure what is wrong with me — what this monochrome dullness I’m feeling is about. At night, sleepless, I fill the hours until daybreak with late night TV chatter and re-runs of Seinfeld.
That’s how I end up in counselling.
The psychologist is a plump black woman, with gray hair and piercing eyes.
“I think you may be suffering from culture shock,” she says. I start to argue, but she asks me to describe my days. “Okay, so you’re busy, which grad student isn’t?” she says, when I stop talking.
Then she asks me, “What is it that you always did in India that you don’t do here?” It’s a question that changes my life.
I start with green plantains. On the counter of the tiny kitchen in my dorm, I dice them small, soak them in water with turmeric. I pull chunks of frozen coconut from the packet, warm them in the microwave. I put the coconut in the blender with other treasures I’ve cradled home on the bus from the Indian store two miles away.
“Throw in the green chillies, add some cumin seeds and yogurt then grind it all up — that’s it.” My mother’s voice in my head guides me through her famed mor kuttan or buttermilk curry. Those endless complaining hours I’ve spent in her kitchen have finally paid off 7,000 miles away.
For me, food has always meant family and friends, cooking communally, eating together. Now, alone in my kitchen, I boil the plantains, add the creamy coconut, lower the flame at the right instant, so the yogurt won’t split into whey. Then, I heat oil and add mustard and fenugreek seeds and dried red chillies. Before I add the curry leaves (a miracle find!) to the hot oil, I hold them to my nose and breathe in their lemony scent. How could I have forgotten the things that sustain me?
I wash rice and add it to the pressure cooker, and, soon, the smell of warm rice fills my apartment. The pressure cooker whistles and I’m back in my mother’s house, to those mornings when I would wake to a chorus of pressure cookers whooshing from all the neighbour’s apartments. I set the table with my new American Corningware plates, and wish I had the steel ones we use at home. I serve myself rice, pour the the pale yellow curry on top and mush it in with my fingers. I eat with my hands and for the first time in months I feel something hard and tight loosen inside me.
My cousin called a few days ago. His classes had started. They were kicking his butt, he said happily. He hardly slept anymore, but that was okay. Oh, and Chechi, he said, we’re cooking. We take turns. We made tomato curry the other night.
Meera Nair is the author of Maya Saves the Day and Maya in a Mess (Duckbill Books). Follow her @MeeraNairNY