My cup for tolerating unacceptable cultural nonsense is past its threshold. I don’t think it was that big, to begin with, but it’s been overflowing for quite some time.
Being easily impressed by a member of the male species for executing the smallest act of decency is like being impressed by your car for driving down the road. Every car is supposed to do that. That is one of the most basicfunctions it should be serving without it needing you to specifically request it. Now, if you are used to being around cars that struggle to complete basic tasks, then maybe it’s time to get it fixed rather than ignoring it and telling everyone, “that’s just how it was made” and “at least the windshield wipers still work.”
But this metaphor can only go so far. So to illustrate the sexism that I believe runs rampant in my culture, let me break down the dynamics of a dinner party in a typical South Asian household. This might shine some light on how systemic sexism is and how it seeps into every facet of one’s culture. My firsthand experience does not dismiss the fact that other cultures have just as much sexism. In fact, on a list ranking the 24 countries that give women the most political power, guess which self-righteous country is missing in action? That’s right—America. But when people within my own culture inappropriately use religion as a justification for misguided gender roles, I am compelled to share my frustrations. The reality that I will lay out in the following paragraphs may not be true to some lucky South Asian families, but in my 21 years of being alive, I am confident that this is how things go down in too many families.
How to Host a Family Gathering in your Home: South Asian Edition
The basic South Asian family in this exercise is pretty heteronormative (aka the way kids traditionally draw families in pictures). There is a husband, wife, sometimes elderly parents, and for our purposes, there is definitely a daughter and a son.
Phase One: The Invites
This part is pretty standard. The husband and wife decide to host a dinner party either because the cousins are in town or your parents haven’t had the chance to invite your newlywed cousin sister and her husband over for dinner. Either way, people are coming over for an evening of entertainment where biryani will be made and the good chai cups will be used.
Phase Two: The Preparation
Do you hear that? Why—it’s the sharp clanging of pots and pans along with the whine of the vacuum cleaner, and, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the sweet whispers of misogyny. It’s really subtle and it might be hard to notice since it’s wrapped in a cute package called “the husband worked hard all day, sitting in a swivel chair while looking at excel spreadsheets so naturally, he needs to relax while the wife tends to all the cooking and cleaning.” Just because this is a party and maybe more than a few dozen people are invited does not mean the husband has to step up. He might fetch some things from the store but the bulk of the work will be done by the wife for this is a woman’s job despite the fact that many of the recipes for the dishes can be searched on YouTube where you’ll find a male chef explaining how much chili powder is needed. As we all well know, as soon as something has the potential to make money, a man enters the scene.
In this second phase, the daughter of the previously mentioned heteronormative South Asian family is expected to help. Oh my, how lucky she is to be able to practice the skills she will need to use as a dutiful wife since the college degree she’s working hard towards must be decor. Maybe the son will help out by reaching to grab the big bowl on the top shelf. Or he’ll take out the trash. But that’s as far as his skill set goes. He won’t be told to dust the living room or sweep the floors. He doesn’t even know where the duster is in the house.
The son might be told to do the heavy lifting in this process but the fact of the matter is, he still has to be told, doesn’t he? The daughter wasn’t told to do anything because, at this point, these basic chores are second nature to her. She doesn’t need to be told to help out in the house because her mother has done an excellent job at instilling these values and skills into her life.
If only we could say the same about the son. He won’t check the bathrooms to make sure they are clean unless you tell him. He won’t be anticipating your needs in this prep time because the only thing he’s been taught is that as a boy, he’s free from these domestic responsibilities. If he does decide to grace the family with efforts to help, then pray that extra nafl for you have been blessed with the greatest son in the world. He can do no wrong, but even when he does, you’ll be blinded by the radiating light that your dear old boy naturally exudes for he is a gift from God.
And to be quite honest, if I was a boy in a world where my laziness isn’t seen as an inconvenience, I’m not sure if I would bother doing any of the work either.
Phase Three: The Execution
The house is clean, the aroma of the food is swirling throughout the house, and the wife was in the kitchen all day except for the 20 minutes she took out for herself to shower and change. The guests start arriving later than the time they were invited but that’s about as expected as hearing aunties brag about their highly educated and/or handsome sons.
The guests will most likely be segregated, and while the husband is busy playing host for the men, the wife will be juggling between entertaining everyone and actually running the party. She is the literal backbone in this joint. Her daughter is assisting her by setting out the mats, heating up the naan, rearranging dishes and perfecting the art of food-setting. She’s been in the kitchen the entire time, carrying out this routine from a young age, all the while the son is upstairs doing one of these three things: playing video games, watching basketball or listening to Drake. The only time he will be in the kitchen is to line up for food.
The husband will be in the kitchen for a bit, but only to ask for more naan or when the chai will be served. Throughout the party, the women will be furiously refilling the food as the men come back for seconds not noticing that their wives haven’t gotten the chance to even develop the thought to get their own plates of food. If abandoning your Islamic principles of respecting women was an Olympic sport, these kinds of men would place in gold every time.
Phase Four: Chai and Goodbyes
In the end, the dishes will pile up in the sink, the table will have to be cleaned and chai will have to be made. All this will be done by a woman. Chai signals the end of a meal just like the closing credits lead to the end of a movie. I can’t remember how old I was when I learned to make chai but ever since then, I learned that no guest should ever leave the house without being served it. However, this beautiful tradition of hospitality towards guests have failed to pass on to almost half the South Asian population. There are exceptions to these gender norms but a cultural shift has yet to come since an obscene number of desi boys do not know what it’s like to go around the room asking each auntie and uncle how much sugar they want in their chai. They have never had to deal with the milk boiling over the kettle. Never had to deal with running back to the kitchen to add “a little bit more sugar, please” before the tea gets cold. Perhaps the only interaction they have had with chai is serving it to the men and being able to identify it as a part of their South Asian identity without really knowing how to make it.
Making chai is a basic skill in life. Just like cooking rice and tying your shoes. If you’ve never been taught basic skills, then either you’ll live without the fruits of that labor or you’ll have others doing things for you. I don’t resent the women I love who have a life structured by these expectations, but I do resent this part of my culture and being surrounded by a community that continues to perpetuate skewed traditions. And frankly, I am sick and tired of always making chai.
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Tina Singh, formerly known as Mombossof3 online, understands how to make her presence known in the parenting space. Seven years ago, she set out to create and share content related to motherhood, and there’s been no looking back since. Singh has mastered the idea of evolving with the times and the needs of her audience while staying true to her number one role in life — mom!
As she navigated her personal and professional life through the lens of a parent, she came across a void that just wasn’t being filled. So, in typical Singh style, this mom of three put her entrepreneurial hat on and got down to creating a solution for Sikh kids who struggled to find a helmet that fits over their patkas (a small cloth head covering).
The problem was personal — all three of Singh’s sons wear patkas and just couldn’t find the right helmet for their safety — and so the solution had to be homegrown. Enter, the Bold Helmets.
Singh gave Brown Girl Magazine an exclusive interview in which she talked about the Bold Helmets, the change in her journey since she’s become a public figure, and what it was like to innovate her very first product!
Here’s how it went:
Let’s start from the beginning. How did this idea come to mind?
This idea has been in my head for many, many years — over five years. I had issues with my kids and having helmets fit them after they turned age four or five.
I worked as an Occupational Therapist, in the head injury space, so I was always the one saying, ‘Okay kids, you’re gonna have to tie your hair in the back, do braids, or something in order to put on a helmet properly because I’m not gonna let you go down these bike ramps without a helmet!’ That’s just not okay for me.
So I talked to my husband and said, ‘there’s gotta be another way this works.’ So we did all the things that parents in situations like these do — they hollow out the helmets, some people go as far as cutting holes at the top of the helmet — you do what works. But I had in my mind an idea of what I think the helmet should look like based on what a patka looks like, and what my kids look like. I then found an engineer to draw it out for me to bring [my idea] to a place where I can actually take it somewhere and say, ‘Okay, how do I make this?’
But, yes, it started mainly with my kids and facing that struggle myself.
You mention that this idea had been brewing in your mind for over five years. How long did it take you to actually bring it to life?
To this point, it’s been about two and a half to three years. I let it sit in my mind for a while. Winters come here in Canada and then we forget about it again until we have to go skiing, and then there’s another problem, right?! I did let it lay dormant for a bit for sure, but once I made the commitment to do it, I made up my mind to see it all the way through.
You recently pivoted and changed the name of the product to the Bold Helmets. Can you talk me through how you came up with the new name?
Bold Helmets became the name because they’re designed to be bold, to be different and who you are. I also think that the way the helmet is made, even though it’s made with Sikh kids in mind, there are other applications to it. I do think that taking the Bold Helmets approach embodies its [the product’s] uniqueness and really focuses on being bold and who you are.
And the Bold Helmet is multi-sport, correct?
This helmet is certified for bicycles, kick scooters, skateboards, and inline skating. It is not a ski helmet. So every helmet you use for a different sport has a different safety certification or testing that it has to go through. So, this helmet is called ‘multi-sport’ because it covers those four sports but I wouldn’t take this helmet and use it for skiing. I’d have to make sure that this helmet, or a helmet like this, gets certified for various other standards for other sports.
Makes sense! I want to change the course of the conversation here a bit and talk more about how you pivoted from Mombossof3 to innovating your very first product. How was that experience?
So what I did throughout this journey was that I went from marketing myself as ‘mombossof3’ to ‘Tina Singh’ because I was sharing more of my life’s journey as my kids were getting older and in an effort to respect my children’s space as well, and letting them decide how much — or how little — they want to be involved with what I was doing online. And part of that was about the journey of what I was doing next, and the transition came naturally to me.
I think right now, truthfully, I’m struggling in the space where I kind of have a shift in audience and so my usual, everyday self that I share on social seems like it doesn’t work. I feel like I need to find a new balance; I will always be true to who I am, and I will never present myself as something that I’m not. But, just finding a space for me to continue creating content while also taking on this new endeavor with Bold Helmets, is important right now.
Aside from this struggle of finding that new balance, what is that one challenge that really sticks out to you from this journey?
I think my biggest challenge being an entrepreneur is finding that balance between my responsibilities as a parent, which is my number one role in my life and there’s no one that can take that role for me — my husband and I are the only parents — and passions outside of that.
Do you think it helped that you were creating a helmet for Sikh children so it allowed you to pursue your passion but also work with your kids in some capacity since they inspired the whole idea?
I never thought of it that way, but yes actually, it did! So all my entrepreneurial projects have involved my kids. Even now they were involved in picking the colors, all the sample tests we did they tried the helmets on! They’re probably sick of it since they’re constantly trying on helmets, but I get their opinion on them. Even as we pivoted with the name, we involved them and got their feedback on it also. So, they were involved in very large parts of this project.
And my husband is also a huge part of this project. He’s been heavily involved in this process, too!
You have a huge online presence, and I know that you’re probably not new to trolling and bullying that comes with being on social media. More recently, Bold Helmets was subject to a lot of backlashes. Is there something that you took away from this recent experience? Was it different this time around?
The extent to which things got was different this time around and that’s not something I have faced in the past. But I have been in the online space for about seven years now, and I’m accustomed to it. I think what I learned this time around is that sometimes silence and reflection is the best thing you can do. Sometimes reflecting and not being defensive on feedback that you get — and this may be something that comes with age as well as experience — is best.
But, I’m happy with the pivots we made, the feedback we’ve gotten, and the way we’re moving forward.
You mentioned that this isn’t your first entrepreneurial venture. But each experience teaches you something different. What did you learn while working on Bold Helmets?
I learned to be okay with taking things slow. I’ve never been that person; I’ve always jumped the gun on lots of things. It’s understanding that it’s ok to slow down and recognize that things have to just run their course.
And while the interview wraps up there, there is more to come with Singh on her journey! Catch Lifestyle Editor Sandeep on Instagram LIVE this Saturday, January 28, at 10 a.m. EST, as she has a more in-depth conversation with Singh on Bold Helmets and more!
In the meantime, Bold Helmets are available for pre-order now, and as a small token of appreciation, Canadian pre-orders will get $10 off their purchase until the end of January 2023!
Bharatanatyam is a traditional Indian dance form and the oldest classical dance tradition in India. Bharatanatyam, originally a dance performed by women in temples of Tamil Nadu, is often used to convey Hindu religious tales and devotions. It is taught by a teacher known as a guru. The dance costume resembles that of a South Indian bride and the dancer wears anklets, called ghungroos, to keep the rhythm while dancing to the music. While Bharatanatyam is still taught all over the world in the traditional way, the styles of teaching have changed over the years. For the last six years, my sister and I have been taught modernized styles of Bharatnatyam in the USA.
An Arangetram lasts approximately three hours and has nine, or in our case 10, dances in total. It begins with an introduction dance called a Mallari or Pushpanjali following the guru’s nattuvangam (rhythm kept using symbols). In the middle of the program is a Varnam — a centerpiece dance that lasts about 30 to 40 minutes. This dance tests the dancer’s endurance as well as their storytelling ability. The performance is concluded with a Thillana which is seen as the last glimpse into the dancer’s full capacity. The Thillana is followed by a Mangalam, the closing dance of the Arangetram.
My sister and I began learning Bharatanatyam in 2016 when we were nine years old. Despite our instant attachment to the art form, we were always daunted by the idea of having an Arangetram of our own. It would be challenging, mainly because we are twins, and our performance would have to be suitable for two people to perform side by side. We began preparing for this event in the summer of 2021. Our guru would make us run for the first half hour of class to build our stamina — much-needed for a three-hour repertoire. We would spend the next two and a half hours learning our repertoire. The first dance we learned together during this time was our Varnam. Learning this dance took a month and we spent a lot of time memorizing it. Our Varnam was dedicated to Lord Krishna, one of the many Hindu gods, known for his charm, wit, and being a master Guru whose philosophies were immortalized through the Gita — the Hindu Holy scripture.
An Arangetram is the on-stage debut of a traditional Bharatanatyam dancer following years of training and discipline under the able guidance of a guru. This is a milestone for young artists as it opens up the opportunity for solo performances, choreographing individual pieces, and instructing other dancers.
By January, we had learned our entire repertoire and were starting to memorize it while adding expressions, poses, and building up our stamina, making them look effortless. Some dances were more difficult to memorize than others, particularly dances that were story-based. Because most Bharatanatyam dance music is in either Sanskrit or Tamil so we couldn’t understand the lyrics right away. Our guru helped us interpret the stories before teaching us the choreography making them easier to commit to memory. We also had help from our mother who listened to all our songs and gave us keywords that corresponded with our dance moves. Listening to dance music on the way to school, dance, or while getting ready for bed, became a part of our daily routine as it helped us internalize the rhythms.
Although a year seems like a long time to prepare for an event, the day of the Arangetram came before we knew it. The morning started off with family and friends coming to our house to help us transport decorations and essentials we would need backstage. We arrived at our venue — the Balaji temple in Bridgewater, New Jersey — and made our way to the green rooms. Our makeup artists assisted us with hair and makeup, which lasted four hours. During this time we were going through the dances in our heads and mentally preparing for the performance to come. Once we were dressed in costume, we headed for the stage pooja, a prayer session on the Arangetram stage with close friends and family, to invoke a successful performance. This was also the time when jitters started kicking in. It had just occurred to us that the performance we’d been preparing for our entire dance careers was about to happen and this was the only chance we had to show the audience our very best.
A person can only have one Arangetram in their lifetime, and this huge milestone comes with pressure given how special the performance is.
As the masters of ceremony were introducing our first number all I could do was stare at my sister standing in the other wing, and I knew we had the same thoughts going through our minds.
As we began dancing I felt almost a sense of relief because of how well we knew the dance. Every single dance was so ingrained in our muscle memory that it felt like second nature even in front of such a large audience. During the repertoire, we had two costume changes, with three costumes in total. Each costume change took 15 minutes while the audience was learning about SAMHAJ or listening to speeches from our friends and family. Backstage, our makeup artists and backstage moms were busy helping us change our costumes and jewelry, adjusting them to make sure nothing would move while dancing. We also had some of our fellow dance girls backstage giving us water and fruit as well as tightening our ghungroos so they wouldn’t fall off on stage.
Our Varnam was a huge success, resulting in a standing ovation from the audience. After the Varnam, we performed a slower dance called Ramabajanam, telling all the stories about Lord Ram, another Hindu god known for his chivalry and virtue. We decided to dedicate this dance to our parents since it was always their favorite to watch and listen to. My mom was heavily involved in helping us memorize this dance by telling us the stories so we wouldn’t forget the choreography. Right before the last dance, we acknowledged all of the people who helped us backstage and were presented with our graduation certificates. In order to give the audience a peek at the effort that went into the performance they were watching, we shared our experience with the audience as well as our guru’s message during this time. Our last dance surprised the audience, as our mother joined us on stage and danced with us. She always dreamt of being a dancer as a child but was never able to learn. Sharing one dance meant a lot to us, and watching it was very entertaining for the audience as well. After all the dances were over, all our guests proceeded to the banquet hall for dinner where we were able to greet all our guests and thank them for coming. When the night ended we were exhausted but still full of adrenaline.
Even though the tension that had built-up in my head over the last few months had now subsided, I was somewhat disappointed that the process had come to an end. I wouldn’t exactly call my Arangetram journey perfect or effortless, but I grew so much this past year as a dancer and as well as a person. The lessons I learned from dance about hard work and resilience will carry on with me for the rest of my life and for that I am forever grateful. The event itself brought so many people together such as my aunt and cousin, who came all the way from India to attend, as well as so many relatives that we hadn’t seen in years. Grandparents, as well as young children all gathered in the audience to watch a display of their culture, or for some audience members, learn a new one. Not only did we spread awareness for this beautiful art form, but we also raised awareness on mental health amongst South Asians — an issue we’re passionate about.
Along with our guru, we decided to leverage this event to create awareness for mental health amongst South Asians in the United States. We decided to advocate for SAMHAJ, a charity that provides education and support for South Asians affected by serious mental illnesses. In order to educate people about mental health, SAMHAJ offers workshops to social service organizations, schools, and mental health professionals as well as provides culturally competent mental health services by creating bilingual support groups. You can donate to SAMHAJ via this link.
Overall, this process has been immensely gratifying and I simply cannot wait to see what the future has in store for me with Bharatanatyam.
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to publish this short story by the brilliant writer Ria Mazumdar. This story delves into very deeply important and timely themes of assimilation, family, mental health, and familial obligations.
Trigger warning: Self-harm and suicide.
America just didn’t have the right supply of spices, Neel thought as he scanned the towering aisles of the grocery store for the third time. White fluorescent overhead lights illuminated the vast shelves, which contained over three different brands of ground black pepper. While cardamom, let alone coriander powder, was nowhere to be found. On a daring day, Americans would venture to purchase paprika, which was about as seasoned as their cuisine would get. Although he had spent years in this country, the aroma of his home — an exquisite blend of turmeric, cumin, and freshly monsoon-drenched earth — still haunted Neel’s memory as he sighed into the dry, stale, air-conditioned atmosphere of the American supermarket. The same land that was supposed to grant him more constitutional rights had also robbed him of his sensory joys.
Resigned, he loaded up the metal shopping cart with ground pepper and paprika, wheeling it toward the cash register. A foreboding premonition rose to the front of his mind: without the right spices, his cooking just wouldn’t turn out right, and his wife Rana would break into tears, launching into her routine tirade. Paprika was one of many triggers of homesickness. She would rage against the frigid winters of Massachusetts and lament the absence of her family, telling him how much she regretted ever meeting him. Neel mentally prepared himself for this reaction as he braced himself to exit the store, walking headfirst into the harsh New England chill.
The pristine plains outside the supermarket stretched endlessly, as silent flakes cascaded down like sunbeams in the moonlight. As he clenched the thin plastic bags with his gloved hands, Neel proceeded toward his used Toyota Camry. The wind snarled mercilessly, tearing through the night like a whip, bearing no consideration for Neel’s circumstances. It did not recognize that he was a foreigner who had not seen snow until the age of 30, when he was tossed headlong into this abrasive climate, greeted by raging frost on a frigid December dusk. Though the walk was short, Neel trembled to the bone, pulling the diaphanous fabric of his navy blue Big Lots jacket closer to his skin. He was well aware that the flimsy, six-dollar garment was completely inadequate protection, but every penny he earned had to go toward a soft, down jacket for his small daughter.
The thought of his daughter gave him the adrenaline he needed to prevail against the hissing wind. One foot in front of another, he trudged cautiously along the snowy path, seeing nothing but a flat expanse of white before him. In the distance, a streetlamp cast a bluish glow. Finally, he reached the car and opened the door hastily, leaping inside to preserve every drop of heat. Arranging the groceries carefully on the seat beside him, he put the key in the ignition, immediately turning on the cassette player.
Barely any cars had cassette players these days, but Neel had gone out of his way to install one specifically so that he could listen to his old tapes from home. Familiar melodies were his only company on these long, solitary drives, providing stolen moments of tranquility. He emptied his mind, following the undulating roads from muscle memory, erasing any obligations to the outside world. The lyrics of his mother tongue washed over him like lukewarm water.
Sinking into a familiar tune lined with the rising drone of a harmonium, Neel came to a stoplight, drifting in this rare state of mental peace. Suddenly, two loud knocks rammed on the car’s rear window. Neel rolled down the window, seeing two men in the shadows. They were pale-skinned, dressed in extra-large gray hoodies and baggy black sweatpants, rapping at the car rambunctiously — the vapor of their breath emerging in wispy, smoke-like clouds. “Hey, sand n****r!” one yelled. “We don’t need another 9/11, go back to where you came from!”
The light turned green, as though it wanted to let Neel escape, and he stepped firmly on the gas, leaving the men’s laughter trailing in the distance. A small American flag ruffled halfheartedly on the dashboard, just above Neel’s brand new U.S. passport stowed in between the seats.
Neel drove on, feeling more resignation than anger. Such incidents were nothing short of expected for someone coming into this great country, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were granted to all, as long as they read the fine print. Racism and liberty — it was a package deal. Neel internalized each of these encounters as an exam, an opportunity to prove his stoic nature. He had adapted to his new life. Anyway, with whom could he share such experiences? The last real conversation he had with Rana occurred even before their wedding when he still lived under the euphoric illusion that his parents had discovered the right girl for him. Now, he dreaded seeing his daughter if he knew Rana would be around as well. Maybe someday the little girl could help shoulder some of this burden. Until then, he kept his chin up and moved along, expressionless.
He pulled into the garage, grabbed the groceries and steadied himself before stepping into the doorway. Old photos of his parents greeted him; the only fixtures on the white walls. His daughter, darting through the simply-furnished living room, ran up to hug his calf. He smiled and picked her up, twirling her around a couple of times.
“Want to help me unpack the groceries?” he asked. She nodded and skipped into the kitchen, her fluffy pink slippers thudding solidly with each landing.
As Neel followed her into the kitchen, he caught sight of Rana watching television, slouched on a couch, wearing her stained purple bathrobe as though she hadn’t moved since the morning.
“Ey,” she called out by way of greeting, her eyes still transfixed on the screen. “Did you bring the fish?”
Neel scanned the items laid out on the kitchen table. “No,” he said with a sigh. “Just chicken — I thought fish was for you to buy next week.”
“I wrote it on your list,” she retorted, her eyes still unmoving. “Why do you never listen to me?” Neel remained silent. As Rana’s tone grew icy, the daughter continued to prance around in the kitchen, unperturbed. Not oblivious, merely accustomed.
Neel poured the paprika onto a plate with some salt and prepared to turn on the stove. Suddenly, Rana got up from the couch and ambled into the kitchen.
“I want to take her to India next month,” she said, gesturing at her daughter. “We haven’t been back in over two years, it’s time.”
“We barely have enough saved up to get her a proper jacket,” Neel said, continuing to prepare his cooking.
“If she had been brought up in India, she wouldn’t need this ‘down jacket.’”
Ignoring this counterfactual, Neel smiled dejectedly. “Well, maybe you could bring back some cumin. God knows this house is missing some.” He regretted these words as soon as they left his mouth. His half-hearted jokes these days simply hung suspended in the air, dissipating and leaving quiet trails of resentment lingering in their wake.
“So, you’re saying we can go? You need cumin. I need my family.”
“No,” Neel said firmly. “We have to wait some more.”
His words seemed to flip a switch in Rana’s eyes. Previously drooping and groggy, her pupils alighted with sparkling embers.
“I always wait for you!” she shouted. “I don’t want to live in this godforsaken place. We don’t even have a proper store nearby. We can’t even eat proper food. You dragged me here!”
His ensuing silence only served as an additional provocation. Rana raised both hands to her head, grabbing her hair in tufts. “I HATE you!” she screamed, yanking out hair in chunks while wincing at the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Neel, all too familiar with this show, silently continued to chop tomatoes. Right down the seam in the middle, a clean slice, taking great care not to let them burst and lose juice to the cutting board. He clicked his tongue in exasperation as one lone seed came away from the whole, breaking the fruit’s pristine symmetry.
Neel’s lack of attention infuriated Rana further, while the daughter continued to sit serenely near her father’s calf. Glancing around the kitchen, Rana seized a small white ceramic plate from the Corelle set her parents had given them for their wedding. Scrunching up her face, she hurled it at the wall in a sudden burst of energy.
“I wish I were dead!” she yelled, her voice breaking and her breathing quickening, growing shallow. Neel kept his gaze on the tomato before him. He mustn’t lose any more seeds. Dice the half down the center, turn and dice again. Rana turned, running out of the kitchen, while her daughter stared confusedly at the shattered ceramic.
Indian cooking is a methodical process. In some cuisines, people throw everything in a pot and let their concoctions simmer. Not so here. One must first sauté the onions, and then gently lower the heat. Only then can the spices be added, coating the onions in a thin layer. After hitting a certain level of fragrance, the remaining ingredients are added, one by one. These steps are like a formula, nothing short of mathematical. Neel approached the stove, following these motions, seeking solace in his own muscle memory as he did during those peaceful, solo drives. The daughter skipped happily out of the kitchen.
Once everything had been added to the pot, Neel bent down to pick up the shards of ceramic Rana had left on the floor, sweeping them as far away from his daughter as he could. He felt a distinct lack of loss looking down at the broken pieces, remembering the day her father had presented them with the Corelle set and a pack of gleaming silverware. He really did like his father-in-law. He recalled smiling and laughing, putting his arm around Rana and envisioning the setup of the Americanhome they would call their very own. Although he could replay these memories in sharp focus, he now felt a strange emptiness in his chest. The knifelike pangs of the past seemed to have left him, just as his fury abandoned him when those two men tapped on his rear window. Part of him wished he could muster up that rage. Rage at the men, rage at himself for allowing the societal taboo of divorce to keep him trapped in his crumbling marriage. But instead, numbness enveloped his heart like a thin sheen of ice, simultaneously sheltering him from the polarity of emotion and inhibiting him from release.
Suddenly, he heard a loud thud outside the kitchen. Alarmed, he stepped out, running to the bathroom. The long glass mirror, stained with the debris of the past few weeks, interrupted his reflection as he stood at the door. Three glass dolls that were also once wedding gifts guarded the basin, once pearly white, now discolored in splotchy, uneven patches, grime lining their foreheads in faded streaks. Inside the basin lay twenty sleeping pills, clumped together, just fallen from reach. The open pill bottle lay sideways by the faucet. On top of the toilet lay a razor stained with fresh blood, the scarlet liquid slowly trickling onto the porcelain. Rana lay weeping on the floor, a lone pill in her hand and three long gashes tearing open her shin. The daughter watched.
“I couldn’t do it,” Rana sobbed. “I have to live, for her.”
Rana knew, but could only admit in her own mind, that she did not want to die. She did not believe in a life after death, only in blankness. But what she wanted was the opposite of blankness. She wanted a release from life as an immigrant. No fresh start can numb the pain of a tree that becomes uprooted from the place it has always stood. Suddenly, it is commanded, not merely to adapt, but assimilate. To shed old leaves and camouflage amid a new, foreign forest. To survive in sub-zero temperatures after being kissed by humid tropics its whole life. To withstand a snowstorm with nothing but a six-dollar Big Lots jacket.
So Rana did not want death. She wanted her hometown, the vibrant island of joy that lay on the opposite end of the planet. She wanted the fragrant monsoon rains that pelted the soil with scent, the same soil from which her own roots sprouted for years before being cut. She wanted a place where English was subservient to her mother tongue, the latter emblazoned everywhere from street signs to soap bottles. She wanted the spices, those long-lost aromas that the “ethnic” food aisle could only dream of capturing. Her body ached to take a dip in the Ganga River. What some, to this day, call the “Third World,” was always her first and only. This place she had landed in was not home. Regardless of what animal inhabited the cover of her passport, it would never be her home. While her body had crossed the circumference of a planet, her heart had stayed back. She knew that her family was a casualty of her pain. Yet it consumed her in clutches so tight, she felt like a puppet of her own longing. Her actions were no longer her own, driven by an unquenchable thirst, the desire for return. So she lay helplessly on the bathroom floor, rocking silently to the rhythm of her sadness.
The daughter looked on, hips akimbo, her head slightly tilted to one side. She was ignorant of her future as a sacrificial hybrid tree, one that grows uncertainly, unsure of its own existence between two lives, two anthems, two tongues, two allegiances, and even two parents.
As the daughter observed the scene — the glaze of innocence veiling her sight — Neel watched her with a dull sense of regret. He approached the bathroom sink without looking down at Rana, who remained curled up at his feet. He reached in with those hands, worn beyond their years, and picked up the pills one by one. This was one routine he hoped he would never have to teach his daughter.
Taking the little girl by the hand, Neel guided her to his own room, handing her some toys and turning on the DVD player.
“Just wait for me to finish making dinner, okay?”
She plopped down on the bed, already distracted.
Rana stayed on the floor, bearing the distance of an ocean in her empty chest. The daughter, playing with a Barbie doll in the other room while watching a Bengali cartoon, was already bearing the duality of a world she could not yet understand. And Neel, impassive, carried the weight of a thousand retorts buried deep within his heart. He and Rana had crossed a sea together but failed to cross the impasse that lay impenetrably between them. Neel stood at one end, unwavering, while Rana lay at the other end, drifting amid her own salty tears.
Neel finished cleaning the sink and set the pill bottle back inside the medicine cabinet. He returned to the kitchen, as though the entire incident had been just another task on his to-do list. As he sprinkled more paprika onto the food and resumed his work at the cutting board, his vision clouded. Onions had always made his eyes water.
When you grow up seeing blood stains on your shampoo bottles, your sense of normalcy shifts as mine did. You don’t cry when you trip and fall on the playground, because you had just seen blood the night before when your mother took a clothespin to her forearms. You watched the blood leak slowly down her clothes and onto the floor, where it left a dark brown shadow for you to see the next day too. You are unfazed when your classmates roughhouse and toss pencils across the room because a pressure cooker was hurled right past your head on your fourth birthday. You rip out pieces of your hair when you get stuck on a math problem because you are following the example of the biological role model that the world assigned to you. You hate this biologyfor making you what you are: a living reminder of your parent’s suffering, of the hurting of immigrants worldwide. You have escaped that pain simply because of the soil you were born on. And so the burden on your shoulders is inexplicable, as you carry the weight of a parent’s mental health, her suicide threats, the weight of her entire life, day in, day out. Your heart slowly starts to contort inward, its once fiery heat chilling over time like that cold Massachusetts night, for the only love you have ever known is wrapped in tears, sleeping pills, and razor blades.