Seeing that Mama’s back is to the table, I snag another milk-cake off the appetizer platter. That is my fifth of the day. My mother only makes her buttery, condensed milk, sweet balls of goodness every so often, so I am forced to eat most of them when she does. To no surprise, one sweet bite in, I hear Mama’s sigh loud and clear. Anyone that knows my mother is aware she’s got more eyes and ears than the president’s secret service.
How many times do I have to tell you there are extras in the fridge? Stop eating from the guest platter. And for god’s sake, go fix your hair. Mama says in Punjabi.
There are two cookers steaming and whistling with the beginnings of tonight’s meal, bowls of chopped potatoes and cilantro ready for stuffing, a pan with hot oil burning, ready to fry samosas to a crisp golden brown, an old recipe book colored with years of accumulated daal stains, and Mama, the conductor with a knife for a baton — who has also found time in that moment to catch me sweet-handed. Mind you, I have already combed my hair once today, and that is already one times too many. Moreover, the guests that my mother is so busy preparing platters of food for are my two dozen colleagues and friends from work — who bare witness to my disheveled hair on the daily.
That is Mama, though. The drama, the commanding voice, the ever present tone of disappointment, the provider of my great appetite. Mama and I had left for America together. I, barely four, oblivious and excited for my first airplane ride, and she — stuffing 28 years of her life into two suitcases that would carry us forward into our new beginning. The hand-embroidered pictures of rabbits and portraits of colonial women Mama had made in her university heydays have changed many walls since they first crossed the border, following Mama and us through each apartment and home. There are a handful of Punjabi dolls that made their way into the two suitcases as well. The dolls, dressed in red suits, silver bangles, and long black braids, have since been rejected by my dad for being too old and flamboyant. The art and dolls that once proved to be among the highest valuables to make it into those two bags now find themselves hidden behind years of other discarded memories. I often wonder what these knick-knacks meant and were worth to be brought across 8000 miles to only be catching dust in our garage now.
As my friends arrive, Mama greets them with what will be the first of their six courses for the night. It only takes them until the second course to realize why I consistently skip out on offers to grab dinner at work (and why you should never have third helpings of your first course when my mother is cooking). Mama has gone with her headliners, and coincidentally my favorites, for the main course tonight: Shelgum (bell peppers) Paneer, Dal Makhani (lentils), Cholay (garbanzo beans), Dahi (fresh homemade yogurt), Roti (bread).
Mama’s cooking was Punjab for me. I had grown up to Mama’s rotis, in more ways than one. Pizzas, pastas, and burgers were great all-American meals but we were never fed to my mother’s satisfaction until we had at least two rotis topped with homemade gheo (butter) for every meal. Growing up consisted of coming home, squarely plopping ourselves on the sofa, turning on Gilmore Girls and waiting for whatever Mama had cooked up that day. While it was from the Gilmore girls that my sisters and I first learned about prom, destigmatized ourselves about mothers dating, and fell susceptible to the Pop-Tarts marketing scheme; it was from Mama we learned about hard work and discipline, drew the strength to become self-reliant Sikh women, and gained unconditional love. Quick wit and sass, we picked up from all these women. It was the rotis in hand, Gilmore Girls-watching American girls my Mama spent most of her new life raising. Mama would (and still does) come home from school and get right to the stove. The few times Mama was sick, I would take up the task of making rotis for my sisters and myself. Unlike Mama’s fluffy, circular rotis, mine would take after the shape of states and countries and had nothing fluffy or soft about them. Not to mention the great mess and twice as many kitchen appliances I would use. Mama was clearly magic, and she had clearly not managed to pass on that magic to me. The few times Mama had encouraged me to learn her ways in the kitchen, I had purposely distanced myself from the work, telling myself that I was going to become a career woman — not trapped under the domestic duties of feeding, cleaning, and managing a household the way my mother was.
My friends and I finish up our fourth course, absolutely sure we will not be able to stand or eat for the next couple hours if not days. We all had succumbed to Mama’s persistent and repeated offerings of just one more roti one too many times and were now paying the price. Mama had been on her feet, chopping and stirring, kneading and spicing, since 8 that morning — and yet seeing these unknown white faces dig in for seconds, thirds, and fourths, I knew she was glowing inside and out.
My mother — who had struggled with regaining her career in America, who had fought battles at every moment, raising three daughters in a land they called their own but she still found foreign, who had made a home out of two suitcases, who still adhered to all the niceties and hospitalities of Punjab in a society that was self-centered and individualistic — to see her kids smile and devour her food was the biggest success of all. But raised in the generation of woman Leaning In, breaking the glass ceiling, my feminism had taught me to see my mother’s hard labor at home as a great sacrifice of a career. That a successful woman was one that was breaking the bank with the guys on the top…by being one of the guys. Yet one bite of Mama’s paneer was enough to convince anyone that, though there was sacrifice, her food was made with insurmountable love and happiness. My mother may not have loved the perpetual laundry load, the clogged toilets, the talking back of three teenage girls (okay definitely did not love), but she loved being a mother. And she was the most successful woman in the world. The dolls, art, and mementos that were stuffed into a suitcase in efforts to hold on to the little of Punjab and herself she could were of little significance to all of Punjab she had brought inside her to this new life. Those mementos now lie mostly forgotten, for they are no longer needed. A food-stained makeshift recipe diary made of cutouts from recipes from Hindi magazines of the early 90’s and embellished with little notes of innovation from Mama is the exception. It has helped keep the Punjab Mama left behind and hoped to keep alive in our new life in a way none of the other tokens have.
And as my friends and I dig into seconds (you somehow find space for special scrumptious things) of the surprise kulfi faluda (ice cream) Mama has made for our final course, I wonder if I will be able to keep Punjab alive the way Mama has.
Writer’s Note: Punjab, a state in northern India with the highest density of Sikhs, is currently under media blackout as it faces State perpetrated violence against its people, similar to the events which led to the 1984 Sikh Genocide. Follow what’s happening with #FreePunjab.