August 7, 2013

Nourishing the Past: An Ode to The Indian Grocery Store

Before I moved to the United States, I had little idea of the archetypical Indian grocery store.

 I grew up and spent my early adult years in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, where there was a substantial Indian immigrant population; over there, it was almost akin to India...not-quite India, as I like to think of it. Apart from the matter of India physically being a mere two hour flight away, it was always readily available in abstract: home-made paneer, liquid idli mix, and Alphonsos in supermarkets, freshly made dosas and chaat, smell of sandalwood at temples, the latest movie releases and vernacular magazines and newspapers at bookshops, and saris displayed in stores. If you hungered to speak or hear your language, you could hear bits of it swirling around in the air, intermingling with the intense heat and scents and becoming part of the atmosphere. In my case, it was Hindi and for many years, I attributed my failure to learn Arabic to Omanis' legendary friendliness. On learning about one's lack of Arabic, Omani shopkeepers, taxi-drivers, and acquaintances would immediately begin conversing in Hindi or rather, Hindi purloined from Hindi films that they religiously watched and worshipped. 

Being part of the Indian diaspora, you are constantly wondering what constitutes home: what exactly does it represent to you? Whenever I would return to India after summer vacations, I would be terribly homesick: I missed the noise, activity, and energy that I had left behind in India and which was conspicuously absent in tranquil Oman. Sometimes, during those initial days while I navigated the cultural transition from my homeland to my adopted one, a warm twilight or the way the air smelt would trick me into thinking I was back in India. And yet, that moment would pass as swiftly as it had arrived – and I was back in Oman, a place where India was just almost within my reach.

During my university years, I moved to United Kingdom, where I studied in the Midlands; the gray skies, unrelenting rain, and the biting cold aside, I realised oddly enough that I had not been transplanted in as alien a land as I earlier thought I had been. When I woke up in the mornings, I could hear Hindi songs on the radio-stations. The cab-drivers spoke Punjabi and I often spotted women in saris and salwar-kameez walking around town. If craving for India became particularly acute, I could take a twenty-minute bus ride to the city's desi-town: there, I ate over-salted samosas, got my eyebrows threaded (in four minutes, flat!), rent out Yash Chopra DVDs, and window-shop the familiar bling-bling of the bangles, bindis, battuas, and outfits on display. In short, I would happily consume my idea of India before returning to university life. For some reason, I then never paid much attention to the grocery stores selling desi products though; I walked past them, only occasionally wandering in to purchase frozen paneer.

My journey looped me back to Oman once again and it was only a few months ago that I got married and moved to Pittsburgh, arriving in the dead of winter, surrounded by skeletal-limbed trees and acres of snow. There is nothing like the unending inkiness of an artic winter evening to make you indulge in a bit of soul-searching and I once again started to think more deeply about where I had come from – and this new place that I was going to call home for the next couple of years Much has been written about the crucial role of food in recreating and indeed, keeping alive the notion of the homeland amongst diasporic communities. It was only then I discovered – and appreciated the presence of the Indian grocery store in my midst.

As a newly married woman, turning to food to conjure up home and family when missing them became particularly acute (and not to mention, feeding my husband!), I realised most importantly that I would not have to make to do with substitutes. Sure, the land that I had moved in was unfamiliar and still alien to me; however, the food was not. Unlike Ashima Ganguli, who has to create an approximation, an ersatz version of the snack she so loved in the opening pages of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, I could precisely reconstruct a dearly remembered dish because of the readily available ingredients at the store. My experience as an immigrant woman greatly differed from women of earlier times, when migrating to different lands was almost tantamount to moving to a different planet, being transplanted in a vastly alternate cultural reality. Speaking of travel, writer Suketu Mehta mentions that for diasporic communities, music is the cheapest airline home; in my case, a perfectly made bowl of kadhi-chawal did just the trick! 

It wasn't just the process of purchasing and abstracting the food though; it was also the site, the Indian grocery store, which became equally significant for me. Unlike other places where I had previously lived and called home, this was the first place where I found myself most searchingly interrogating the Indian-ness that nestled inside me: what was it like to be an Indian living abroad? Like Hindu and Jain temples in the vicinity, which were both literal and metaphorical shrines, the Indian grocery temple too was a shrine to that Indian-ness – and upon entering the store, I found the waves of familiarity it radiated comforting and warm. I heard Hindi film music from different decades playing on shuffle in the background as I sorted through packaged paneer, parathas, naans, and rotis. I leafed through bundles of coriander, radishes, spinach, and green onions. I examined the numerous kinds of dals, rice, and masalas on display. If I so wished, I could buy Jain mithai or Dabur coconut oil or steel katoris. Samosas warmed in the grill; behind the counter, the hydra-headed Indian pantheon beatifically looked down upon me in all their divine iridiscence. 

Back home in Oman or even where I lived in United Kingdom, I had never been aware of a sense of longing for home or feeling so displaced from it. Yet, here, at this critical new juncture in my life, I found myself more sharply questioning my place in the scheme of things: what was the flavor of this new city? What did its people think about? What was this country, United States, that I was living in? As months have passed by, I find myself telling everyone that I am settling down into my new home. Yet, what does 'settling down' mean anyway? Isn't there a ring of stagnancy or even static to that statement? For those of us belonging to disaporic communities, ours is a nomadic existence, leapfrogging from one culture to another. Sometimes, it happens when moving from one country to another; other times, it occurs within the orbit of our daily existence, moving from our intimate spaces to the public ones outside. 

 For me, each country that I have moved to and lived in, however briefly, encases an embryonic home – following the initial period of acclimatizing to the place, I have set about incubating and nourishing it into existence. In this merry-go round of movement and transitions, though, you need something to anchor you down in order to stop and reflect and connect; for me, as I swim through the sea of multiple new experiences, I have found myself that island of India in the Indian grocery store. 

And so, a few days ago, finding myself hungry at lunch-time, I found myself walking to the Indian grocery store that coincidentally happened to be nearby and treated myself to a couple of samosas. Sitting outside beneath the brilliant, cloudless blue sky and feeling cherry blossom petals drift down upon me, I contentedly munched on my samosa, feeling my two worlds cheerfully and happily intersecting.


This essay was originally published in the August 203 issue of India Currents magazine; you can read the article here

Images courtesy: various internet sources