I never imagined my city-raised Indian husband would put his sweat equity towards a backyard vegetable patch in suburban Atlanta amidst a global pandemic. It made us acutely aware of who we were becoming — Desi Gothic.
My husband is a New Delhi born architect, and I am a Mumbai born indie author and food writer. I live and work from our suburban Atlanta home, whereas he super-commutes to his workplace in California, being home only for a few days each month.
Our life has confounded many: We are a South Asian couple with atypical careers and an unconventional family life. For a good part of fourteen years, we have been the only South Asian family in a mostly white neighborhood. When quarantines kept my husband home in Atlanta in March 2020, we decided to self-quarantine, and seek out ways to be self-reliant.
As immigrants who came to the US as students in the mid-’90s, both my husband and I knew how to cook. Our familiarity with exchange rates had fine-tuned our resourcefulness or jugaad. Although we didn’t only eat Indian food, by the third week of quarantine, our refrigerator was bare of favorite Indian dishes made with fresh ‘Indian’ vegetables that weren’t cauliflower, cabbage, okra, spinach, or eggplant.
We quickly became aware that our neighborhood stores were poorly stocked of fresh ethnic produce, and the CSA’s (Community Supported/Sourced Agriculture) and produce delivery services weren’t reliable. We missed the many varieties of soft-skinned gourds, baby eggplants, sword beans and pole beans, fresh Fenugreek leaves or Amaranth greens, and more. We missed the taste of ‘back home’ – i.e. India, with meals where fresh fruit and produce layered with personal blends of spices could otherwise anchor us with sweet reminders of family far away, of wishful hopes to visit them, of embraces that would have made all of this bearable.
We explored pandemic-focused food groups for inspiration. They revealed what different folks valued most: cooking at home, missing eating out, their CSA’s, bread flour, wine, baking pies, recognizing shortcomings of basic life skills like cooking, bemoaning the many civil liberties we all once took for granted. It also laid out the range of class-privileges and divergent interpretations of quarantine-living.
Self-reliance is subjective —determined by socio-economics and is deeply cultural. The varied definitions of self-reliance and identity exposed in the time of a pandemic are telling of who we are as a people, as a community, and as a nation. And yet, the world would have us believe otherwise. Although we are in 2020, mainstream food publications, celebrities and brands continue to culturally appropriate and/or undervalue identities of people of color and either limit visibility of their cuisine or of the individuals themselves. These entities continue to exotify ethnic cuisines, but ironically, ethnic produce is near-impossible to find in conventional grocery stores. These acts reinforce the whitewashing of ethnicities. Such willful omissions routinely ignore, suppress and stifle the voices and stories that otherwise belong to people of color.
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Hailing the resurgence of ‘Victory Gardens’ without fully acknowledging those who cultivate the land regardless of scale, people of color who claim space in their own backyards and in community gardens, but most importantly, their underlying vulnerabilities are nothing short of repugnant. The plight of farmers of color being left out of the federal government’s PPP and CFAP relief programs relief funds is heartbreaking. Such exclusions are cyclical, systemic, repetitive and incestuous. The lingering enervation of witnessing our ethnic foods, culture and cuisine being routinely, systematically and incessantly bastardized – yet not mainstream enough to be included has become wearisome.
History bears witness that people of color and immigrants of color like us are often ignored, shunned, ridiculed and attacked if they raise their voices to protect civil liberties, freedoms and identities. We often can’t call out blatant racial hatred and crimes against us because we don’t look a certain way. We aren’t allowed the ‘privilege’ of being included, recognized, or honored. Instead, our stories are frequently and conveniently adapted and retold; our existence, and lives made available for the taking.
Rather than condone omissions and forgive these deliberate acts of exclusion and erasure, my husband and I elected to divert our physical and emotional energies and sweat equity towards claiming space and growing our own Indian vegetables, at least for now. This garden was us silently affirming our presence.
It wasn’t easy to source seeds or live plants of Indian vegetables. With limited means, our challenges highlighted the cultural disconnect. Friends suggested specialized sources, and within two weekends, we had a modest but bare raised vegetable bed and several orders in the mail.
I waited for onions, peppers, eggplants, seeds of classic Indian greens, gourds, beans and strawberries to arrive. When the seeds, bulbs, runners and live plants finally came, I rushed to plant them. While planting them hunched over our new beds, I recalled many summers of being on my parents’ small family farm outside Mumbai — growing, harvesting and selling fresh farm produce like mangoes, eggplants, varieties of gourds and onion braids out of bamboo baskets to passers-by. The recompense of my childhood labor wasn’t the few rupees I earned then or the tasty meals that transformed unsold produce into delicacies, but the profound richness of life experience — repaid as enduring appreciation, and an affirmation of cultural identity confidently emerging in my adulthood.
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Three weeks in, the black patch of mud was transforming with shots of green. Each morning, I saw my husband’s salt and pepper locks leaning over the vegetable patch, checking the progress. Like farmers everywhere, we waited for the rain and rejoiced when it did. He grew up a city boy and had never had such an opportunity before. I shared his anticipation of growing familiar vegetables that reminded us of the flavors of “back home.”
Two months in, and with nothing ready for harvest, our small vegetable patch continues to rise slowly under a garland of Tibetan prayer flags suspended mid-air between two tall trees. It is guarded against hungry rabbits by an ultrasonic barrier, emitting invisible beats, like our emotions. Everything here: the plants, their colors, their fragrances, anticipation of flavors and the emotional intent – makes it a place of introspection and reflection for us. As the greens emerge through, I can only imagine celebrating our first “harvest” with a garden portrait, with the vegetable patch and our home in the background, our version of a ‘Desi Gothic’ portrait. Like its inspiration, American Gothic, ours would include an unlikely couple in the foreground: two brown people with unconventional jobs, smiling through the questions, posed in conventional expressions of portraiture.
I hope to collect other portraits like ours – to inspire a conversation about perceptions of homes, gardens, and lives of brown and colored people, especially in the American South. Much like the vegetables we chose for our patch – a blend of here and there, those that are culturally special and unique to us, our “Desi Gothic” would pose an altered question: “Should we be asking what the people who live in these houses should look like?” And while we wait for a harvest worth photographing, our vegetable patch will have connected us to the two lands: where we are in America, and the one we are separated from, in India. We, and our summers, will never be the same again.