According to the unspoken rules that defined our upbringings, our story should have ended there. The moment we discovered our difference—about an hour into our first date—we were supposed to chug the last of our coffee, politely shake hands because a hug would be too intimate and say, “it was nice to meet you.”
But I was drawn to his way of speaking and his laid-back nature. He was the kind of person who could wear sweatpants and a hoodie on a first date and get away with it. And maybe he felt attracted to me, too. So we let our identities as “Pakistani” and “Indian” blow away like fall leaves, while we slipped into an easy conversation about basketball, living in Houston, and our friends. We went on this way for three hours, his fingers wrapped around a mug of black coffee as he spoke, taking his time with each word. Me, rambling quickly with big hand gestures.
When it came time to go our separate ways, we exchanged a quick side-hug and said a casual see you later like we were old buddies. I texted my friend that evening saying, “I really wanted to give him a huge bear-hug.” But I restrained myself and tried to act as cool as him.
Within a few weeks, we were close friends—textingnon-stop, having deep conversations about happiness and philosophy, pushing that nebulous line between friendship and romance.
But that line was not one we’d cross easily. It was drawn 72 years ago when the British ended their colonial rule over India and partitioned the subcontinent into two nations, divided by religion. One of the most violent mass migrations in human history ensued. Millions lost their lives in a mutual genocide between Hindus and Muslims, and millions more were displaced from their homes.
To him and me, Partition seemed like ancient history. But we knew its legacy lived on.
One evening, we went to a Houston Rockets game together. Standing outside the arena, he told me he’d mentioned to his mom that he was going to a basketball game with a girl. His mom asked if the girl was Muslim. He had said no.
I knew then our separation was inevitable. An impassable line lay between our matching copper-skin tones and dark brown eyes. But at that moment, I only wanted to be with him. So I pulled him into the basketball arena and engrossed him in NBA trivia before he could say anything more.
The next time we met, there were things we needed to say to each other. Things we needed to work out. We were sitting in the gym parking lot, sweaty after completing a yoga class together, and I could feel a heavy conversation looming. I was hoping that if I lingered in his car long enough, he’d lean over and kiss me, and we could forget about reality.
Instead, he looked straight ahead, wanting to say something but not sure how to say it. He was frustrated and drained by the situation, and I needed to acknowledge it too. Both of us were living at home with our parents and felt compelled to hide our whereabouts in order to meet. He was irritated that his parents’ outdated mindset had a strong pull on him. I, too, heard my parents’ voices in my head, telling me to back out.
“Don’t make life more difficult,” my mom would say. “There’s just too much history there,” she’d add, trying to justify the archaic animosity between Hindus and Muslims.
I understood her urge to justify it. She, like my father, is the child of Indians who lived through Partition. I’ve grown up hearing both of their parents make discriminatory comments about Pakistan and Muslims. The underlying racism in my grandparents’ attitudes made me cringe, but for my parents, those comments were tossed around the dinner table, implanting a prejudice in their entire generation. Those biases would not be easy to erase.
As I sat silently in his car, I heard my mom’s voice ringing in my ears, urging me to forget him. Minutes passed this way but finally, we reasoned that we were just friends anyway and there was no harm in that, was there? Who knows what will happen, so why create unnecessary stress?
But a few days later, we couldn’t say we were just friends. We’d gone to see Mean Girls in the park. It was dark outside when the movie ended. We walked to the street corner together and when it made sense for us to each turn a different way, I started up a conversation, just to be with him a little longer.
When there was finally nothing left to say, he looked me in the eye and then at my mouth. I leaned in and our lips lightly touched how they’re supposed to. My hands slid around his neck, and his arms pulled me in close.
We had the difficult talk the next time we met. Neither of us agreed with our parents’ views but we both needed our families and feared losing their support. So, after a long kiss, we thought it would be our last, we said goodbye.
Only a week passed before we re-entered each other’s lives. The Snapchat he sent me of his breakfast one Wednesday morning was enough to spark a longer text exchange. We enjoyed the back and forth banter and talking again. Even through a screen, it brought back the longing. I gave in to my emotions and said, Why not?
I was still getting to know this boldness in myself. By nature, I’m a rule-follower. My mom often reminds me that, as a child, I would ask for her permission to fall asleep in the backseat while she was driving. I’m the person who had a near panic attack when I thought I might have cheated on an assignment (I hadn’t).
I worked hard through school, not for the love of learning but because I was trained to do so. I followed the worn path, keeping my eyes on the next gold star, no distractions. And It seemed to work: I’d landed at a top college and ultimately a corporate job my family could brag about to their friends.
But eventually, I started to unravel. I was in my first semester at Harvard Law School, a place I ended up in because, apparently, it would lead me to even greater things. During my first few weeks there, I struggled with debilitating anxiety. Anxiety so painful I requested a leave of absence and moved back home with my parents.
When I finally reemerged as a real human a few weeks later, I felt a new freedom to do whatever I wanted. I grew bold, deferring law school another year and taking up a job as a writer. I questioned everything to get to the core of myself.
When he came along, I was ready. I wouldn’t let an irrational cultural bias drive my decision about whom to have a relationship with.
But he was more restrained, unsure whether this was a battle worth fighting. And though I may sound gutsy, I, too, was scared. Leaving law school was one thing. Choosing a love I was trained to see as forbidden was another.
We finally decided to keep seeing each other temporarily. He was moving across the country soon anyway so just until then, we said. No games. My friend warned this was dangerous territory. Ripping off the Band-Aid is better, she said. I disagreed. I know myself. I won’t get attached. In my mind, knowing the relationship had an end date would keep my emotions in check.
But we were soon in the back of his car, parked on the top floor of the empty movie theater parking lot, whispering those three words into each other’s ears. On our days off, he’d come with me and my dog Pearl to the dog park. I noticed Pearl took to him quickly, the same way I did. She barks at everyone else, but with him, she sits right under his legs and lets him pet her head.
My friend was right. That last goodbye and the days after did hurt but hurt is all right, I’ve realized. I think it means we did something right. We let go of the future and what it may or may not hold, and we gave in to the present. We put aside the weight of other people’s expectations, and we played by our own rules.
Thousands of miles lie between us now, and neither of us dares predict the future. We cut off our communication because, with us, there’s no moderation. It’s an all or nothing endeavor, and neither of us was ready to put in our all.
I like to root for our relationship, pondering that maybe one day we’ll land in the same place again, and maybe then, we’ll be older and stronger and ready to dive in. We’ll boldly challenge our parents, bridging the cultural divide by example.
But I know our paths may never cross, and we may simply be fond memories in each other’s pasts. Maybe one of us will fall for someone else. Or maybe we’ll meet again and discover our relationship worked only because we both saw it as time-constrained. I do not know.
For now, I think back to our memories together, his arm around me, eyes dazzling and easy smiles, and I remind myself of what is possible when we dare to cross the line.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
February 2, 2023February 11, 2023 7min readBy Arun S.
Kevin Wu, previously known as KevJumba, is an American YouTuber, from Houston, Texas, with more than 2.68 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 323 million views. His content consists of vlogs, social commentary, musical parodies and more. Wu also streams on Twitch and has released original music as well as freestyles. His most popular YouTube video is titled “Nice Guys” with Ryan Higa. Wu has also worked with many individuals including A-Trak, Chester See, David Choi, Globetrotters, Iyaz, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Lin, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, and more. He has also appeared in movies such as “Hang Loose,” “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” “Man Up,” and more. Wu is one of the first original YouTubers gaining popularity in 2008 and even had another channel, titled JumbaFund, now known as Team Jumba. Continue reading to learn more about Kevin Wu’s journey!
We really enjoyed the project ‘Underneath the Lights.’ On the track “WHY U IN LA” the lyrics, “Don’t know who I might be, it might surprise me. I could be a hypebeast, That’s nothing like me, It’s so enticing.” How do you feel this speaks to the idea of self-discovery? What have you learned about yourself, diving back into making content?
I love that song we did. The artist who sang those lyrics his name is Zooty. I really provided the energy and direction for the musical piece, but I give credit to my producer Jonum and Zooty credit for the lyrics. Both guys are a slightly different generation, gen-Z, whereas I grew up as a millennial. I find that I left a lot on the table when I left YouTube at 23, so when I work with gen-Z I have so much that I want to give. Coming back to YouTube this time around, it’s all about self-reliance. Coming from movies and television, you have to depend on people to get a better product. But with YouTube, I’m going back to my roots and putting my wit and effort into every part of the process again (writing, directing, performing, producing, editing). I want the result to be authenticity and a homegrown feeling.
When you started your YouTube channel you were known for your vlogs and social commentary. How do you feel about the new age of content creation — where content is in surplus but individuals aren’t feeling the content?
It’s hard to say whether or not individuals are or aren’t feeling content — the taste is just so wide now. It’s like living in Los Angeles; food is very competitive, and when picking a restaurant you have every ethnic variety and even fusion foods. I imagine opening a restaurant in LA to be very competitive and the attention to detail in what you make has to be authentic or hit a certain demographic. I feel on the Internet, YouTube does a decent job of catering to your sensibilities, the so-called algorithm. However, the personal connection you get with content creators has somewhat been shifted, and now it’s become more interest-based (ie gaming, how-to, music, politics, etc.)
How do you feel the original algorithm has changed, and what do you miss most about that time?
I don’t remember talking about algorithms back in 2010 to 2012. People watched their favorite Youtubers because their homepage included their subscriptions first and foremost, and then if your subscriptions hadn’t posted anything new, you would typically check the most popular page. Then trending became a thing and now you have algorithms generating your timeline based on a bunch of data. I think it’s forced creators to think externally and hanging onto identities i.e. what are my interests? Am I a gamer? Am I a streamer?
We parodied your music video for “Nice Guys” for our orchestra music camp skit back in high school. If Chester, Ryan, and you, had to recreate “Nice Guys” today, would you focus on the concept of self-love for the current generation? We also really loved “Shed a Tear.”
I definitely think self-love would be a very nice theme. Recreating it would be nice, actually. I think it’s hard to get three people to all be in the same room again, especially after leading different lives. But “Nice Guys” was something special for each one of us, and Chester See deserves a lot of credit because of his musical talent. It’s made me realize today the impact of music. I really enjoy the expression of music because it forces you to be more artistic, versus just saying what’s on your mind. Like poetry, or hearing harmonies.
You’ve worked with many individuals and groups in the past including, A-Trak, Chester See, David Choi, Globetrotters, Iyaz, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Lin, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, and more. If you could create content with any group of individuals who would be your dream collaborators?
At this stage in my life, I really enjoy coming back and rekindling those creative connections and checking in with previous friends or acquaintances. Doing a video with Ryan Higa, Jeremy Lin, Chester See, David Choi, Wong Fu, Jamie Chung, those would all be very fun. But the first step would be to just see how they’re doing. So that’s the closest thing to a best case scenario for me. I’m not trying to force any collaborations at the moment (haha!). Unless it’s convenient.
As an NBA fan you expressed you would like to talk more about basketball on Ryan’s “Off the Pill Podcast.” How do you feel watching sports and has playing sports helped you become more in tune with yourself?
After going through a lot of physical adversity after my car accident, reconnecting with sports has been really helpful. I played basketball for a while and I’d like to get back into soccer. I wanted to talk about basketball on Ryan’s podcast because I was still dipping my toes into Internet content/social media and didn’t want to talk too much about myself at the time.
As a content creator how do you balance not letting validation get to your head and authentically connecting with your audience?
We all seek validation. It’s innate, but it’s about where you seek it. Nowadays I remember to validate myself first, by starting with my mind and body. After a while, you can get a sense of when you need validation versus being totally unconscious of it. Sometimes that sense of validation is important, so we know to check in with our parents, or see if a friend needs positive feedback. To connect with the audience, that’s like number five in my priority list (haha!). Having an audience can be scary; you definitely want to be in tune with yourself first.
How do you deal with comments consisting of “I miss the old KevJumba?”
As live streaming has become a new form of content now, how have you enjoyed live streaming on Twitch for the Head In The Clouds Festival both in 2021 and 2022? We really enjoyed seeing Ylona Garcia sing “Nice Guys!”
It’s fun, I enjoy live streaming and I really appreciate 88rising and Amazon Music for inviting me both years to be the host for their livestream.
What was the decision behind putting your family in your videos?
I put my Dad in my videos accidentally; we were on a ski trip. I think people responded really positively in the comments, and then I just sat down had a conversation with him on camera, and it became a hit. After that he just became his own character. I think I tend to come alive more when I am interacting with someone on camera.
We really liked seeing you upload videos to Team Jumba. Is the mission still to donate earnings to a charity that viewers suggest?
At the moment, no. The Supply, which was the charity I donated to before, has since shut down. I also don’t make much money on YouTube anymore, since I was inactive on my channel for a while, so that format from 2009 will be difficult to replicate.
We really enjoyed the ‘KevJumba and Zooty Extended Play,’ specifically the track “With You in the Clouds” featuring fuslie. How has Valorant inspired your music as well as other forms of content creation?
The album was really experimental. I find the personal connections I made in gaming to be the most enlivening. “With You in the Clouds” was inspired by TenZ and, since he’s such a legendary figure in the pro FPS community, we had to do a worthy tribute. I think paying tribute to the things you like is a really great way to think about content creation.
How do you feel your childhood experiences in Houston, and playing soccer, have shaped you to chase your dreams of acting? How have you enjoyed acting in comparison to YouTube?
I love acting. It’s a wondrous lens at which to see your relationship with others. I find that in studying acting, you are often really studying the human experience or the mind. It’s like learning psychology but you are on your feet, or you are reading great theater. Playing soccer and growing up in Houston don’t really contribute directly to why I enjoy acting, but I very much enjoy coming from Houston and thriving in soccer. It made me commit to something and seeing how consistently “showing up” can really ground your childhood and prove to be valuable, later in life.
How do you feel we can uplift each other across the Asian diaspora and unify to create ripple effects of representation?
I think listening is probably the best thing you can do. Just genuinely hearing about something, or someone, helps you really invest in them during that time that you are there. So I think that’s probably the first step.
What made you go back to school and finish your degree at the University of Houston in Psychology?
No one reason in particular. I was also studying acting at the time back in 2017-2018 when I completed the degree, so it was just testing my limits and seeing what I could balance. I finished it online.
What are your upcoming plans?
Just experimenting on YouTube for now. Making videos with my own effort.
Your first video was uploaded back in 2007 and was titled ‘Backyard,’ where you are dancing to a song called “Watch Me” by Little Brother, off of the “The Minstrel Show.” We also really enjoyed your video with Ryan Higa titled “Best Crew vs Poreotics.” Are you still dancing these days?
Yes. The body does what the body wants.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
Nothing in particular. I try to let my mind flow when I answer questions. I may have jumped to conclusions before fully investing in some of the questions, so I apologize. If you are reading, I thank you for your time and patience. I also thank Brown Girl Magazine for putting together a vast array of questions that allow my mind to stretch and work out a bit. I hope you find a stronger connection to your own truths, and I hope I did not disturb those in any way. Regards.
In honor of women’s history month and Ramadan, we are publishing this short story by award-winning author Adiba Jaigirdar. We had the pleasure of interviewing and connecting with Adiba in the midst of the pandemic, and she has remained a supporter and a friend of the literary vertical and Brown Girl Magazine. This short story by Adiba encapsulates the spirit of friendship and community in a time of celebration. Adiba’s next book ‘Do and Donuts of Love’ will be out on June 6, 2023.
It’s not Ammu yelling my name over and over that wakes me up on Eid morning, it’s the sweet aroma of payesh, floating up from the kitchen, through the floorboards, and making my mouth water.
It only takes me a few minutes to roll out of bed and down the stairs, peering at the massive dish of payesh right in the middle of the kitchen table. It’s what I’ve been looking forward to for all of Ramadan — Ammu’s famous payesh recipe.
“Safa, don’t you dare touch that,” Ammu calls from where she’s standing, by the stove, making a fresh batch of porotas for our Eid breakfast.
“But it’s been so long since…” I start to plead, but Ammu cuts me off.
“Get dressed, get ready, and after Eid prayer, we can have some payesh,” she says, though her voice has already lost some of its fervour. When I glance at Ammu, she has that familiar look of nostalgia. Unfortunately, I know exactly what she’s remembering. “If only it was the payesh that your Nanu used to make…” she says softly.
I heave a sigh, and say, “okay, I’m going to get dressed,” before slipping out of the kitchen as fast as I can. In our house, you can’t really talk about payesh without Ammu’s long-winded story. It always starts with how she wishes we had the ‘real’ payesh recipe that our family — the Jahangirs — have been known for around Bangladesh, since the Mughal era. It’s the recipe that’s been passed down for generations in our family. That is until, after our Nanu unexpectedly passed away two years ago, the recipe seemed to disappear.
This is where Ammu’s long-winded story ends: her bitterness that her older sister has the recipe but refuses to share it with Ammu.
Now, we can only have Ammu’s payesh. Even though she has spent the past two years trying to recreate our family recipe, she insists that there’s something missing. A key ingredient that made our Mughal-descended recipe famous around all of Bangladesh. So, Ammu’s payesh comes with a bitter footnote — a strange kind of loss that people outside of our family would probably never understand.
Back in my room, I shut the door and take a deep breath. Because today isn’t just any ordinary Eid. Today is the day that I reunite my family.
But Ammu doesn’t know that yet.
I fling open my wardrobe and pull out the dress that I had bought online weeks ago. It’s a long violet kameez with floral stitching running down its length. Silver embroidery lines the cuffs of the sleeves, and the ends of the dress; making it sparkle when it catches the light. It’s perfect.
Better yet, it’s part of a matching set.
My phone pings just at that moment. As if, my partner in crime can read my mind.
“Ready for today?” Marwa’s text reads.
My hands hover over the keyboard for a moment. And even though my heart is beating a little too fast in my chest, I type back “totally ready,” and put the phone back on my bedside table. I’m hoping that acting like I’m totally confident in our plan will actually make our plan 100% successful. But truthfully, I’m not sure how Ammu will react once everything is in motion. And I’m not sure if I’m a good enough liar to convince her.
But if all goes to plan, by the end of this Eid day, Ammu’s payesh story is going to get a lot shorter. And Marwa and I won’t have to hide our friendship any longer.
With that thought in mind, I change into my Eid dress.
“I don’t understand this Eid party business,” Ammu complains during the drive from the mosque to the community center, where the bi-annual Bangladeshi Eid party always takes place. “In Bangladesh, there aren’t any Eid parties. It’s just visiting your family and friends; not this ‘party purty’ with virtual strangers.”
“Yes, Ammu, I know,” I groan, glancing out the window and trying not to roll my eyes. I know that will lead to an entire lecture about not being respectful to my parents. “If you made up with Khala then we could…”
Ammu cuts me off by glancing back at me with a stone-cold glare that I’m pretty sure has the ability to kill. It’s the same glare she sends my way every time I even mention that she has a sister. That I have a khala. That these people exist and live in the same city as us. That we could be celebrating together, but the years-long feud between our families has kept us apart.
“No more talking,” Ammu declares, staring straight ahead. She’s clutching the dish of payesh to her chest now as if it’s her lifeline. Considering how much she has sacrificed for her payesh, I guess it kind of is her lifeline.
But, as I glance out the window at the rush of trees and cars and buildings zooming by, I can’t help but think about what our Eid celebrations used to be like. And wonder how Ammu is so okay with letting all of that slip through her fingers.
The buzz of my phone distracts me from my thoughts.
“We’re here!” The text from Marwa reads.
“We’re five mins away,” I text back quickly, before glancing at Ammu. She has her lips pursed — obviously still annoyed that I dared to bring up Khala on a day as special as this. My heart beats a little faster at the thought of what she’ll say when she spots Khala at the party. She hasn’t come to one of these parties in the two years since their fall out, and it’s thanks to Marwa’s spectacular lies that she’s there now. Not knowing exactly what’s waiting for her.
I can tell the party is already in full bloom as soon as we pull into the parking lot. There are barely any spaces left. And the inside of the community centre is like a burst of colour. Whoever decorated the place for our Eid party did a marvelous job. There are multicoloured balloons and streamers hung up around the room. A giant banner on one wall reads ‘EID MUBARAK!’ and the other side of the room is filled up with kids’ drawings from the annual Eid art competition.
“Too many balloons,” is Ammu’s only observation as she shoves one of them aside in order to place her payesh on the large table, in the middle of the room. It’s already filled with different dishes — but I know everyone’s dying for Ammu’s payesh specifically.
I heave a sigh and glance around the party. Through the throngs of people hugging and cheering and laughing, it’s not easy to spot two people. But I do. In one corner, closed off from everyone else, stand Marwa and her mom. Khala doesn’t look happy at all, though she’s wearing an expensive-looking sari and a full face of makeup. And Marwa is looking around impatiently. She’s wearing a salwar kameez that matches mine perfectly — except instead of violet and silver, her outfit is blue and gold, perfectly complementing her bronze skin.
When Ammu’s back is turned, I wave to Marwa. Her face breaks out into a grin as soon as she sees me. She waves back, before motioning to her phone. My own phone vibrates with a text.
Marwa: “Meet me by the bathrooms in two minutes.”
“Ammu, I…have to pee,” I say.
“You couldn’t have gone before we came here?” Ammu says with a sigh. “Okay, go.” She waves me off. But just as I’m leaving, I notice that she’s already trying to push her bowl of payesh on our Bangladeshi neighbours. Not that the payesh needs much pushing. It may not be the recipe descended from the Mughals — but it’s still pretty damn good.
“You’re late!” Marwa says as soon as I’m in her earshot. She pulls me to the little corner just by the bathrooms — almost completely out of sight.
“Ammu wanted to talk to way too many people after the Eid prayers,” I say. “I tried to stop her, but you know what she’s like.”
“Stubborn,” Marwa mumbles under her breath. We both know all too well about that. “Did she bring the payesh?”
“Would it be an Eid party without it?”
She smiles, even though I can tell her heart’s not quite in it. Just like me, she’s nervous about the plan. About how both our mothers will react — after declaring each other enemies years ago and refusing to even be in the same room together. All because of a dessert recipe.
“What if this doesn’t work?” Marwa asks the question that we’re both thinking about. After all, convincing both of our moms to bring their payesh to the same Eid party so that people can taste them both and show our mothers how it doesn’t matter who has the family recipe or not, seems like a good idea — in concept. In execution, it has way too many chances of falling apart. There are so many factors that Marwa and I just can’t control.
But after months and months of trying to come up with some way to get our moms to reconcile, this was all we came up with. Once upon a time, our moms were so close that they named their two daughters — born within months of each other — after the two hills in Mecca. For years, we grew up side-by-side, like sisters more than cousins. Until our parents decided they would ruin all that. Over a dessert that non-Bengalis think is as simple as rice pudding.
“It has to work,” I say, with more conviction than I’m feeling. Marwa nods in agreement.
“Was she suspicious?” I ask.
“Not even a little bit. Once I convinced her that Khala had gone back to Bangladesh to celebrate Eid and that she had the chance to showcase her payesh recipe, it was easy. She wanted to get here early to scope out the best spot for her payesh,” Marwa says, rolling her eyes, but I smile. Because that’s exactly the kind of thing Ammu would do too. The two of them are so alike — and that’s exactly why this feud has kept up for so long.
“Even if this doesn’t work,” I say slowly after a moment. “We’re not going back to being friends in secret.” It’s been too many months of secret phone conversations and text messages. Too many days where I’ve lied to Ammu about meeting a friend from school, just so I can see my cousin. When before, it was sleepovers every week and seeing each other every day. A friendship that seemed boundless.
“We’re old enough to fight them back on it,” Marwa says, not sounding convinced at all. Bangladeshis don’t talk back to their parents…but ours are being ridiculous. They have been for too long now.
So, I gave a determined nod, and the two of us step away from our corner, and back to the main room in the community centre. Where all hell broke loose.
In the middle of the room stand our two mothers — both wearing their new Eid sarees that are now in disarray. They’re in the middle of a screaming match, either unaware — or uncaring — that everybody in the room, around them, is watching them with wide eyes. This is definitely going to be the gossip topic of the year, doing the rounds on all the ‘Auntie/Uncle’ WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
“Ammu!” Marwa calls rushing up to her mom, while I make my way over to mine. “Stop! Everybody’s watching!”
“You told me that she wasn’t going to be here. You lied!” Khala says, sending such a powerful glare toward Ammu that I’m surprised she doesn’t wither away.
“Yes,” Marwa says, even though I’m shaking my head at her vigorously. “Safa and I planned to bring you both here, so you could see how ridiculous you’re being. Right, Safa?”
Everybody’s staring at me now. Except for Ammu, who has taken all the power of Khala’s glare and turned it towards me.
I shift uncomfortably from foot to foot for a second before slowly nodding my head. “Yes…Marwa and I planned it. You both brought your payesh, you can see how it doesn’t matter. People are going to love both of them. They’re…”
“You brought payesh?” Ammu’s voice is a whisper, but somehow it seems to envelop the whole room.
“Of course, I brought my payesh,” Khala says, propping her chin up defiantly.
Ammu turns to the table where all the snacks and desserts brought in by various people are laid out. There’s a bowl of chotpoti, plates of shingara and shomucha, boxes of roshogolla and kalojam. But right on the edge is a dish filled with payesh that is definitely not ours.
“Ammu, no…” but I’m too late. Before I know it, Ammu is striding towards the payesh faster than she’s ever walked before. She grabs hold of the dish, and it’s almost like the entire room is collectively holding its breath.
She glances over at Khala, but there’s no wicked grin on her lips, no evil glint in her eyes. She almost looks…sad.
“You should have given me the recipe,” she says, her voice so low it’s a surprise we hear her. “I deserved it as much as you did.”
Khala frowns, stepping a little closer to Ammu. “I should have given it to you?” she asks. “You’re the one who kept it from me.”
“What are you talking about?” Ammu asks. “Ma told me that she gave you the recipe years ago. And after she passed, I asked you for it. You said you wouldn’t give it to me.”
“I said I couldn’t give it to you!” Khala cries. “Because you were rubbing it in my face. You were the one Ma gave it to. She told me so.”
“Wait!” I exclaimed, stepping forward. Normally, I would never raise my voice like that to Ammu, but this definitely doesn’t count as a normal situation. “You mean neither of you ever had the recipe?”
“She did!” Ammu and Khala say at the same time.
“Nanu lied to you both!” Marwa chimes in.
“Why would she lie?” Ammu asks.
“Why would I lie?” Khala asks. “And why would I keep the recipe from you?”
Marwa and I exchange a glance. All of these years, our moms had been fighting a feud that they shouldn’t have been. But Ammu is right. What reason would my grandmother have for lying to them both? For pitting them against each other?
“Do you think Nanu lost it?” Marwa asks. “Or…maybe that the payesh recipe descended from the Mughals is just a story.”
“It’s not just a story,” Ammu protests, shaking her head stubbornly. “The Jahangirs are descended from the Mughals.”
“But did the Mughals make payesh, or even eat payesh?” I ask.
“I don’t remember seeing any payesh in Jodha Akbar,” says Marwa, like a Bollywood movie is the best factual reference for our family history.
“If you never had the payesh recipe…what is this?” Ammu asks, glancing down at the bowl she’s holding.
“It’s my own payesh recipe…I made it in memory of the one that Ma made.”
“I made mine in memory of the one that Ma made too,” Ammu says softly. “But…I don’t understand.” She shakes her head, glancing down at the ground like that will have all her answers. “Why did Ma lie to us? Why would she lie to us?”
Khala’s eyebrows scrunch up like she’s deep in thought. But for just a moment. “Do you remember when we were kids?” she asked slowly. “And our Nanu used to make the payesh, before Ma ever did?”
“I remember,” Ammu says with a nod.
“When I used to think of Nanu, I used to think of the smell of cinnamon,” Khala says. “Because…”
“That’s what her payesh used to smell like,” Ammu finishes off, glancing up to meet Khala’s eyes. “But Ma never put cinnamon in her recipe.”
I’m not sure what transpires between them in that moment, but it’s like all the years of enmity that didn’t need to exist vanishes just like that.
“So there was no payesh recipe?” Marwa asks, glancing between our two moms, looking a little distraught. I can’t blame her. To think that we’ve built our entire family identity around this and our pride for this famous payesh recipe that goes back generations.
“Maybe once upon a time,” Khala says. “But…I don’t know when it got lost. Maybe it was our Nanu who lost the original recipe.”
“Or…maybe it was Ma,” Ammu says. “And that’s why she lied to us.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure,” Khala says.
“But…now we have these two payesh recipes,” Ammu glances down at the dish still in her hands. But instead of looking sad or even angry, she looks happy. Happier than I’d seen her in a long time. “Do you want to trade our recipes?”
“Yes!” Khala exclaims excitedly.
And I watch as Ammu and Khala saunter off arm-in-arm to celebrate Eid, catch up on their lost years and — most importantly — trade their payesh recipes.
“I can’t believe our plan worked!” Marwa says, coming up to me with a glint in her eyes.
“Our plan didn’t work,” I point out. “Our plan didn’t even start before Ammu and Khala started going at each other’s throats.”
“Yeah, but…they would have never had that conversation if we hadn’t tricked them into the same room, right?” Marwa shrugs her shoulder.
“I guess. I think we can take credit for this. We’ve earned it.” It definitely feels like our victory watching Ammu and Khala talk and laughs, as if those two years of separation never even existed.
Marwa grins and loops her arms through mine. “Shall we try some of the famous non-Mughal payesh?” she asks.
“We should, especially now that we have two recipes in the family.” And as we wander off to fill up on the tastiest dessert in the world, I think about how Ammu’s payesh story is definitely going to be a lot longer next year.