Josna Rege

391. buying up the whole store

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, parenting, United States on October 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Birthday haul from the Indian store

Birthday haul from the Indian store

Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his own people,” however one might define one’s own. In his teens he left his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, where he apprenticed himself to an accomplished watercolorist for a year, then took a diploma in architecture from the Sir J. J. School of Art. Soon afterwards he boarded a steamship for London, where he was to stay for 5 years, studying, working, and befriending and sharing digs with Indians and Britishers alike. He met and married an Englishwoman (soon to become my mother), withstanding and wearing down the opposition from his bewildered family. Back in India, at I.I.T. Kharagpur, my parents’ friends included Indians, some mixed couples like themselves, and a few visiting foreigners. Later, in Athens, their friends included many Greeks and a cosmopolitan crowd including Australians, Austrians, Americans, Britishers, Germans, Indians, and Pakistanis. And when Mum and Dad moved to the United States, at a time when there were still very few Indians in the country, their closest friends here in New England were both American and Indian.

But despite his diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, in the last few years of his life Dad admitted, almost guiltily, that he pined for Indian faces. He looked forward eagerly to the local Indian association’s annual Diwali event, when they laid on a catered Indian feast and everyone took out their gold ornaments and dressed up in the silks that lay folded in boxes all year. Dad would put on his best Indian woolen jacket and Irish tweed hat and pace the front hall for hours in advance, while I fussed anxiously over the draping of my sari. Funnily enough, though, once he was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a lively, multigenerational, multilingual Indian crowd, he wasn’t much interested in interacting with anyone; he was content to eat, take pleasure in the sights and sounds, bask in the warmth of the organized chaos, and just be.

We don’t live in an area with a high concentration of Indian Americans, so the nearest Indian grocery store is in Springfield, about twenty miles away, and we usually managed to get there only a couple of times a year, when Dad had an eye doctor’s appointment. Last year we paid them a special visit on his birthday and came away with a highly satisfying haul that would last us until the next time. Just looking at all the choices made us ravenously hungry, so we always bought a fresh samosa each and ate it in the car on the way home, with Dad pronouncing it “Delicious.”

Our last visit to the Indian store, back in late May or June, had been delayed due to Dad’s second hospitalization of the year. He was now having to be on supplemental oxygen day and night, trundling a small oxygen tank in front of him in a little three-wheeled walker wherever he went.  On this visit, he put the oxygen tank in a shopping cart and pushed that around the store instead. We oohed and aahed at everything we saw: packets of savory snacks of every description (“munchies”, Dad called them); tins of pure ghee; frozen chapatis from Malaysia that tasted almost as good as home-made; heaps of fresh curry leaves, dhaniya-patta (cilantro), and green chillies; sweets of all kinds by the pound, driven up from New York; several varieties of  mangoes, sold by the box; blocks of jaggery made in Kohlapur, right near Dad’s hometown of Ratnagiri; cans of mango pulp made in Ratnagiri itself; and, of course, a myriad varieties of rice, tea, and spices.

As the clerk rang up our order and we began to maneuver our cart out to the car, Dad said wistfully, “one feels like buying up the whole store.”

The next month, the day after his 92nd birthday, we had to call an ambulance for what turned out to be Dad’s final hospitalization. Most of the Kohlapuri jaggery and the pure ghee still sits here at home, looking as lonely and bereft as we feel. Diwali approaches again, but this year it will be a quiet one. We will simply be content to attend the function and to be surrounded by Indians for a while.

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  1. Very moving; very sweet. Thanks, Josna.

  2. Thank you for writing about your father. It brings back my own father. Glad to see you writing again, Josna. 🙂

    • I’m glad it meant something to people besides me, Linda. Your last post encouraged me to write something after a long time. Thank you. J

  3. hi josna,

    a very vivid and poignant piece. especially since i went to the indian store in waltham with n & e on sunday. i felt like i was in india!

    i wish i’d known your father…

    and i was really happy to have spent the malala time with you!

    lots of love, louise

    On Sun, Oct 23, 2016 at 6:26 PM, Tell Me Another wrote:

    > josna posted: ” Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his > own people,” however one might interpret one’s own. In his teens he left > his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, > where he apprenticed himself to an accomplish” >

    • I was happy to receive your note, Louise. Thank you for writing. Ah, I bet the Indian store in Waltham is well stocked! I remember the days, back in the early 70s, when the only one in the Greater Boston area was India Tea and Spice in Cushing Square, Belmont. Please say hi to N and E for me. I’d like to meet them while they’re here. Do let me know if you and Jim plan to come down to my neck of the woods anytime. I’m so glad we were able to do the Malala gig together–and grateful to E for having made it happen. Love, Josna

  4. Good one! I’m so glad I had a chance to get to know him a little, especially through you.
    A unique and delightful man. I enjoyed art through his eyes. He will live on in my memory and heart for a very long time. Love, M.

  5. Poignant and moving. Prayers to you and your family. Take care Josna ji. Sending light and prayers your way!

    • Thank you kindly, Mahesh. I need that light, as the winter darkness descends. So do we all, to see us through the dark times. Right back to you, J

  6. I think there’s a sense in which one can only be universally open to others when you know who you are and where your roots lie, and I certainly don’t mean that destructive kind of nationalism. Would you see your Dad’s universality coming out of his understanding of his own “Indianness” Josna?

    • That is such an interesting observation, Don, and one which family and friends reflected on during Dad’s memorial gathering. There was a lot of discussion about his ability to live in the moment and not to dwell on the past. He was not orthodox or traditionalist in any sense, but, yes, I think that part of the reason he could live wholeheartedly wherever he happened to be at the time was that he was secure in himself and his traditions. I wouldn’t call it “Indianness” in so many words, simply because that word tends to be used by nationalists in India as a stick to beat people with (for not being “Indian” enough), but in the culture, society, community, and family in which he was raised. He did believe that an Indian identity was an ancient one, and not, as the British suggested, a new idea that was merely a result of British colonial rule. Still, he was also steeped in the British literary tradition, in Impressionist painting, had wide-ranging tastes, loved all kinds of music and food, and so on.
      So you see, Don, you have touched upon something very important in a few well-chosen words, while my reply has got very long! Thank you. Josna

      • Thank you for your explanation of the word “Indianness,” Josna. I love the way you refer to “ancient Indian identity.” I must say I admire the way he was able embrace British tastes and not forgetting his own traditions. There’s a profound integrity about that. I would’ve loved to have had some conversations with him. Lovely post, Josna, thank you.

  7. I was directed to your blog by another who recognized some similarities in our styles. So here I am! Glad to meet you! By the way, sometimes when I go to a Japanese grocery which is an hour away I go a little crazy! I also read your tale of being pulled over. That was an excellent post too about your encounter and a good warning to all of us.

    • Hi! Glad to meet you, too, and apologies for having taken so long to reply. Life has been hectic for me lately, and I haven’t been posting as often or regularly as I would like. I have visited your blog and like it very much; I’ll follow it with interest. J

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