Josna Rege

121. The Taste of Home

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on August 23, 2011 at 10:59 am

Living as we do outside both the countries where we and our parents were born and which most of our extended family still call home, we miss out on most of the rites of passage that punctuate and solemnize the important stages of life, especially births, marriages, anniversaries, and deaths. In all the forty-plus years that we have lived in the United States, I have been able to attend only two family weddings in England and one in India. Particularly in India, these are the occasions that bring the entire family together, even those who don’t see each from one year to the next.  Of course we have celebrated joyous occasions right here in the States, notably my son’s name ceremony, my sister’s wedding, and my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I was never much for ritual anyway, having got married in a registry office, in the tradition of my parents before me. But when a close family member dies thousands of miles across the world, we feel the loss all the more keenly because we cannot participate with the family in the rites that mark the dear one’s passing.

Each in his or her own way, my parents had to learn to live with that separation from their families. Both of them received the news of the deaths of parents and siblings in a distant country, after they were already gone. In large part it was the pain of this separation that spurred me to make regular travel to India and England a priority in my adult life. This is much more of a possibility for me than it was for my parents before international travel was easy or affordable for the middle classes. With inexpensive calling plans, e-mail, and social media like Facebook, I can also keep in touch on a daily basis in a way that was impossible for them in earlier years. But still, when death strikes and we are oceans and continents away, there is a feeling of desolation that cannot be reached by virtual communication. At such times, I find, words do not help. Only coming together in person can possibly offer any comfort.

courtesy of Jyotsna Shahane at thecookscottage.com

courtesy of Jyotsna Shahane at thecookscottage.com

It is here that besan laddus come in, those golden, golf-ball-sized, melt-in-your-mouth Indian sweets, made of toasted chickpea flour, confectioner’s sugar, shredded coconut, and pure butter. My father has never been a fan of sweets, but besan laddus are different: they are the taste of home. Some years ago, after we had received the news of a death in his family,  I found myself making a batch and taking it over to my parents’ house. I offered them silently, with a hug, and we sat with them over a cup of tea and reminisced about the dear departed one.  Since then I have started making them about once a year at Christmas, and on sad occasions when nothing else will suffice.

A few days ago I received the terrible news of the death of my cousin Raja. Raja-dada was my eldest cousin on my father’s side, the first-born son of my father’s eldest sister, Tai-atya. Like all his siblings, he was born in our recently-sold family home in Ratnagiri, his mother traveling home to be with her own mother for the birth. At that time my father’s youngest sister Manda was only ten years old, so Raja, at ten years older than me, was a kind of bridge between the generations. His daughter Pooja—now a mother herself—was born in the same year as Nikhil.

My father has always held a very soft spot in his heart for his sister, Raja’s mother, who also passed away too soon, and for all four of her children. I knew that the news would be very sad for him, and dreaded having to be the one to break it to him. So I made a batch of besan laddus and took it over to my parents’ house, where we sat quietly over tea and remembered dear Raja-dada. I showed my father the photographs from our most recent visit with Raja-dada in 2008 and gave him the blessed news of Pooja’s first-born son. And as I pushed the heavy stainless-steel container toward him, my heart leapt as he opened it and said, “besan laddus—my favorite.”

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  1. Ah Josna, that sooo resonates with us. Intimate loss across continents is the hardest to live down yet, as we have just learned with death in C.’s family. We would have appreciated the transport of such wonderful sweet comfort… but endless phone calls had to make do. S.

    • Dear Bine, lovely to receive your response, and please accept my sympathy for your and C’s loss. When we are next together we will have to share tea and some besan laddus (though I can predict with some confidence that we will not be sitting quietly!). x J

  2. Josna,
    You are so thoughtful to soften the sad news for your father with his favorite and familiar besan laddus.
    So sorry to hear of your family’s loss.
    Anna

    • Thank you, dear Anna. It’s just as much for me as for him, though. Making and then sharing them serves as kind of ritual of mourning, replacing at least in part one we miss out on by being so far away. x J

  3. Josna:
    This is a very delicate description in more ways than one. Was it Joan Didion who wrote in her book about grieving that you should offer thin toast and tea? That would be all the grieving person would be able to swallow. The thing about besan laddus is that they take effort, and the effort itself is an offering in a time of grief.
    Rashna

    • Thank you for your insightful comment, Rashna. Is that observation of Joan Didion’s from The Year of Magical Thinking? I haven’t read it yet, but would like to. I think you are right that the making of the laddus is itself meaningful, and right to see it as an offering. x J

  4. Dearest friend,
    This is the first one that made me weep! Words are indeed not enough and yet the words you chose have been able to convey so beautifully your shared sorrow and comfort with a tradition that must go back thousands of years. Thank you. I wish I could make you some besan laddus and share them now.
    “It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away!”

    • Dear Marianne, you are right that we (and this is particularly true for me) put so much stock in words, words that are inadequate and yet are sometimes all we have. I have just looked up and played “Words,” which, amazingly, I had never heard before.
      I suppose that preparing and sharing certain foods at times like these is a tradition as old as human civilization. But as we both know very well, migrants must of necessity improvise new traditions. For me, besan laddus, which I make from that recipe that we adapted from The Hare Krishna Cookbook as new immigrants way back in the 70s, carry so much meaning and value (besides being simply delicious, which of course they are too). Thinking of you.

  5. This brought tears. I’m so sorry to hear of your cousin’s death, and what a beautiful way to break the news to your father. Our family was oddly cut off from traditions, partly because we moved a lot while others in the family didn’t, so I’m having to learn to make them. Your post gives me something to think about: what is the comfort (food or otherwise) I could give my siblings?

    • Thank you, Sarah. We’ve spoken of making new traditions before, when you told me of the Spring Equinox/Easter/Passover feast you went to in Greenfield. For me, receiving unexpected care packages in the mail is always comforting, and they need not contain food. In these days when few people send snail mail anymore, it is probably all the more delightful. In my childhood, letters and parcels were eagerly awaited because they almost always came from far-flung family, and it was always magical to open my aunts’ Christmas parcels. Recently our dear friend Michael sent us a care package from New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, with red chilli powder and tortillas in it. We’re still using the chilli powder, and I feel the warmth of our friendship and the New Mexico sun every time I make up a batch of New Mexico red.

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