Today I picked up some Indian style pastries: a black forest cake, a pineapple cake and a butterscotch cake from a small Indian snack shop on my way home. You have to be an Indian to understand the lure of these cake flavours. Black Forest cake is a layered chocolate sponge cake, with vanilla butter cream frosting in between and on top, decorated with chocolate shavings and a sugared cherry; pineapple cake is a layered vanilla cake with pineapple flavored frosting in between and on the top layer and topped off with a sugared cherry; butter scotch cake is also a layered vanilla sponge cake with vanilla and butterscotch flavored frosting and topped with some hard butter scotch pieces and a sugared cherry. Notice, how all the cakes are topped with cherries…I don’t know why but all the Indian style pastries always have a cherry on the top!
When I started sharing these cakes with my friends, I realized that they were not particularly tasty nor were they true to their names in terms of flavors. They all just tasted like sponge cakes with some kind of butter cream frosting. We had a bag of potato chips and we ended up eating a completely unhealthy snack of pastries and potato chips. That’s when a friend remarked, “Isn’t this what we ate at birthday parties growing up?” Our childhood birthday parties consisted of going to a friend’s place, whose house was decorated with balloons and confetti, where after the birthday cake cutting ceremony, your friend’s mother served you a piece of cake, some chips and maybe a samosa on a disposable paper plate. All this was eaten up quickly and then you were served an orange drink called Rasna in disposable cups.
Growing up we had only one cake shop in our town, and probably only that one brand of pastries existed throughout India at that time. It was called Monginis, and having a pastry there was considered a treat which was reserved only for special occasions. So of course all the birthday cakes growing up were from Monginis. I remember it would be such a treat to select your birthday cake a week before your birthday, looking through the pages of their ‘made to order birthday cakes’ book, so you could select exactly the one you wanted for yourself and your friends. I remember Monginis being the only cake shop around until much later when I was in my 20s that couple of local brands sprung up in some corners of the town.
I know the pastries that I bought here in Boston don’t taste anything like what they used to be in India; but they tasted like childhood memories, of the days when lives were simpler and birthday parties were joyous occasions intended only for gorging on Monginis cakes and rasna!
Unless you have been living under a rock in the last few months, then you know the media has been buzzing constantly; first with endless US presidential election campaigning, then the US election night, Indian PM demonetizing the Rs.500 and Rs.1000 bills and then the final cherry on the top: Donald Trump winning the elections to be the 45th President of United States. While all the outside news has been constantly hammering on in my mind, the twists and turns of life and work have also kept me constantly busy.
For as long as I remember whenever life overwhelms me, I have turned to books and reading. Like Hermione in Harry Potter, when faced with a problem I have looked for answers in books and library. So it isn’t surprising that in whatever little time I have had lately I have read voraciously. When there is so much drama happening in real life, one doesn’t want to read anyone else’s life drama; even that of a fictitious character. So I picked up couple of books from science fiction and fantasy genre. Fantasy genre is one of my favourite genres and if the book is a fantasy thriller….my life is all set! I mean who is thinking about real life problems and presidential elects when you are hot on the trail of aliens trying to invade earth or a wizard trying to save humans!
For science fiction this time I tried a book called The Three-body Problem written originally by a Chinese author Liu Cixin and translated in English. I just finished it yesterday and it was one of the most interesting science fiction books I have read; it was mainly about how a group of people are sick of the current state of humanity and decide to invite a race of aliens to save the human kind. It resonated with me because this is exactly how I feel about human race today, where we are completely losing touch with our humanity. While realistic it was also thrilling, fun and educational. Today I picked up Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I have never read any Ursula Le Guin, but have heard wonderful things about her writing and I am excited to start the book. The other one I picked up was Fool Moon by Jim Butcher which is the book 2 in the Dresden Files series. Most of the books in this series can be read standalone and I have read a couple of them in no particular order; but this time I decided to start reading the series in its right sequence.
I have always loved to read thrillers, mysteries and adventure stories. I guess I have always looked for a way to escape the reality even if it is for a little while, if I can get a fun ride with a wizard or an alien during that escape I am more than happy to get on it!
More than half a century ago a man left the green fields and farm lands of western Maharashtra to try his luck in the glittering city of Mumbai. His mother had passed away a while ago and he left behind his father and younger brothers with the promise to bring them to the city. In Mumbai he found friends, a small place to live, got his degree as a certified accountant, and a job. Eventually he started his own company that manufactured chemicals and trained his brothers to manage that company. That man was my uncle, who brought his younger brothers from a small rural village in Maharashtra to Mumbai, give them better education and to give them a chance at a better life. Once he came to Mumbai, he never went back to the village except to visit the other relatives there every now and then. He got married and found matches for his brothers one by one, including my father. Everyone started their families in Mumbai and nobody gave a thought to return back to the village. The second generation of my family (my cousins and myself) decided to come further away to improve their lives and a few of us immigrated to the USA. Like our elders before us, we have not given much of a serious thought to going back to our lands. Like my uncles and my father who were immigrants to Mumbai and eventually became citizens of Mumbai (called mumbaikars), we have slowly become Americanized.
People all over the globe move from their home towns and home countries and become immigrants elsewhere. Mostly they move for a better life, better opportunities for families, and sometimes just for the sheer adventure of living unmoored in a new place. I moved away from my home when I was young to find a life different than the one I had back in India. Maybe like my uncle I thought this was the right move to have a better future; but unlike my uncle I didn’t have to bring any of my family here with me.
When you move far away to make your life better, you leave something behind…usually elder parents, other family. You lie to yourself saying you will be back one day but you never get back. Whether it is moving 350 km to Mumbai or 10000 miles to US, it is a move where eventually you will never look back. You have to make a life where you move in order to be successful, but the happier you are in new place the guiltier you sometimes feel about all that you have left behind.
I don’t know if my uncle ever felt the guilt or worry about his move decades ago (he wasn’t the kind of person to talk about his feelings), but he was very happy when his daughters moved to US, he felt that like him they were moving on to something better in life. I just wish I had asked him about all this when he was still coherent, I wish I had talked to him about how to immigrate when you leave half your life behind.
It is funny how sometimes you meet strangers and can just connect with them. And then sometimes the opposite also happens, the strangers who had become friends go back to being unknown strangers again. I have had experience with the latter when a best friend became a stranger and a ‘he who shall not be named!’
But life is strange and time is weird, it heals you even though you don’t want to be healed, and finally there comes a time when memories don’t hurt as much and you can smile and let the stranger go…