A Sense of Belonging

My aunt in England always called him “your Bush.” She protested his foreign policy vociferously on the phone to me as if I had a direct line to the White House.

I was dreading having to explain the election to her this time around. I didn’t have to. Within two days of the Bush re-election, she passed away in London. The two events were not related but made for a bleak week in November.

Many of my friends who had protested the war in Iraq and opposed Bush on social issues were dismayed at the prospect of four more years bolstered by control of the Senate and the House. Many of us, whether American citizens by naturalization or still holding on to our Indian passports, wondered if we really belonged here any more.

But in death Pishimoni, as I called her, reminded me that we can always create a space to belong to if we really try.

She came to England on a ship in the 1950s as a 20-something single Indian woman. That must have been such an inhospitable gray country to land into. There were no desi supermarkets, no Alphonso mangoes flown in by the crate. She didn’t see her family in India for a decade. Yet, she recreated the flavors of home the way immigrants always do—through substitutes.

When I moved to the United States at the end of the 1980s, Pishimoni taught me to cook the immigrant way—with substitutes. Over transatlantic phone calls we traded recipes. Do you know, she would tell me, that turnips with shrimp is almost as good as that hard-to-find lau for lau-chingri?

Now my cousin and I pore over a long list of funeral essentials and acceptable substitutes that the priest has emailed. No holy tulsi plant? Not to worry—you can just use basil instead. This is a funeral of substitutes. And that feels okay.

Once the substitutes were all about recreating a corner of home. But perhaps at some point, the substitutes have become us, their taste more familiar, more real than the ones they were meant to evoke.

It reassures me that the election results sting and disappoint. It means they are real, not just pallid substitutes for elections in India. Uncomfortable as it might be sometimes, we are home.

That’s why, when it comes time to scatter her ashes, perhaps we will scatter Pishimoni not in the Holy Ganga but in her own English garden. When the daffodils come up next spring, I like to think, she’ll feel at home. And there’s no substitute for that.

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