He raised his small, sticky arms above his head and screamed “YALLAH” as loud as his voice would allow. My dad at three years old, sat on a cool tile floor with syrup dripping from his tiny fists. In either hand, a milky white ball, a rasgulla. He loves to tell this story.
Rasgullas are sweet spongy things with a mysterious history. Many regions of India try to claim their origin story. They went from being a special occasion dessert to being so beloved that people have tried to pass them off as healthy. Much like other Indian desserts they are bold in their sweetness, they glisten, served in generous portions. Their favour is rivalled only by the glorious rasmalai, made of saffron threads, a galaxy of pistachio, rosewater, and the heaviest cream.
After I was born in London on Christmas Day, 1987 my dad developed a fondness for calling me “rasgulla cheeks.” He was twenty-eight and I was a chubby first born, with a pale round face and Sonic the Hedgehog hair on end. He often recalls that day at the hospital — I looked around at his sister, brother, and parents with a look that said, “who the hell are these people?” He tells this to me while playing my first cries out loud. He recorded them on a cassette tape.
My dad sat on that tile floor in 1960’s Chittagong, Bangladesh. He was raised by ayahs there and then came of age at a boarding school in Lahore, Pakistan. He was sent there at age five.
I was a first generation Indian born in Britain. I spoke Urdu before I spoke English. I lived in a ramshackle multi-generational household on the side of an A-road for most of my childhood. I didn’t have my own bedroom until I was ten. None of these things were unusual for an immigrant family not two decades out of war. No one spoke about the war.
I never thought about the fact my dad didn’t grow up in a home, but in a school. There were no pictures stuck up on our walls other than the ones I made in school. It was a house completely bereft of nostalgia. I didn’t think about this. No one wanted to talk about how we came to be in England so I decided I was as British as you could be, that was the culture I had access to. There was no Indian in me, as far as I was concerned. No-one at school asked me about my race or my heritage, so the perpetuation of distance felt natural. It felt like me.
I read the Berenstain Bears, Archie Comics, I watched Mary-Kate and Ashley videos. I was the exotic I chose, the one that came home alongside my dad from his business trips to America. Success. My dad often read the books he brought back to me, changing the names of characters to insert me into the narrative. I would be outraged. He was amused.
Then came the age of sleepovers. I soon found out that there was no denying that I lived in a house unlike any of my friends. My mum would cook Indian food for all ten people living in our house daily — all those relatives there at my birth and then some. They ate salaan most days. I lived in fear of my school uniform smelling like those meals, spices settled in fibres. No one else’s house smelled that way and no one would ever get to sleepover at my house, as there just wasn’t room. They wouldn’t understand. This unknown past began encroaching on my everyday life.
Indian clothes became an extension of my angst. Long before the age I learned the phrase “self-conscious” my mum would lay out shalwar kameez for me to wear to family parties. I would find that the clothes would physically agitate me. I would itch and itch my inner elbows pink until it was impossible for my mum to make me wear them. I claimed they hurt. And they did, I still remember the pickling pain. I also remember the relief of taking them off. I can still feel the quiet exhaustion of my little six year old body weighed down in kaam, fighting what was carried over in the suitcases of family members I did not know or recognise.
I have only seen a few photographs of my dad as a teenager, but they’re nothing like I would’ve imagined a Pakistani boarding school student in the 1970’s to be in appearance. Cigarettes in hand, long, shaggy haircuts, bell-bottoms and shades. They looked more like the Rolling Stones, posing and pouting. My dad found these photographs when he was cleaning out an old office. When I saw them, he scooped them away. The next day I asked him what happened to them and he told me he had burned them. I later found out that that was a lie. Soon after those photos were taken my dad came to London as a refugee. The first Ambala sweet store had opened on Drummond Street just a few years before his arrival.
I was about seven when I remember first seeing an Ambala box. My grandad was a prolific walker and he had gone to Wembley to buy mangoes, and then Euston to get sweets. I was curious, the contents appeared scentless, but for sugar.
Over the years of living family on top of family, the fractures of the household became clearer. Multigenerational living in London was not the same as in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It was not only to me no-one spoke about the war. Not my grandparents and aunt to each other about being held in jail as political prisoners in India, not my uncle to my dad about being presumed orphans for three years of their teens in Pakistan, not my mum to my dad about his growing absence from London. I barely remember seeing my dad over these pre-teen years, but when I did see him, he would offer me a bite of rasgulla, a slurp of soft rasmalai brought home from trips to Ambala. As we ate, a family member or two would always be sitting there at the inky quiet dinner table, spoons clanking against empty bowls, satisfied.
I would not go to Indian restaurants — the smell sat in my hair, so I sat in my parents car. The heavy sweet boxes from Ambala sat by my side. I remember peering into their glass counters from time to time, at neon-orange jalebis forming a crisp curl, and at the mountainous multi-colours of halwa. Pale yellows, cool greens, earthy browns, not chocolate, not mint, nor butter.
I was a teenager when I rejected religion entirely, my decided last thread to my family’s culture. I was once very enthusiastic about attending Arabic school on Saturdays as my cousins also went and they served great burgers with chilli jam from a van out back of the mosque. I stopped going when my teacher told the class she thought Tony Blair was a secret Muslim and was quoting the Quran in press conferences in the run up to the Iraq war. My parents were devastated and angry about my rejection of Islam, but they were certainly fine with me not going back that class. Things with the rest of my family got harder when they should’ve gotten easier.
My dad’s sister married and moved out with her daughter from a previous marriage. She gave her daughter her new husband’s last name, something so Anglo-Saxon that no-one would know she was brown before meeting her. Years after the divorce from the six month tryst, both kept the surname. She seemed to value this as a personal achievement.
My dad’s brother and his family also moved out abruptly, something that my dad has never said hurt him, but I remember sorrow coming from something that should’ve brought relief — more or less a nuclear family, finally. I forgot he used to believe his brother was his only family left during the war. The years I resented, were the only years he had with his whole family.
In certain Indian families no matter what happens you always celebrate together. You can hate each other, but no matter what you go to the wedding, you sing happy birthday, and you take the pictures. Any excuse to dress up. With my aversion to Indian food and clothes and at sixteen finally having a semblance of a home I deemed normal, these gatherings felt like an attack. Inevitably the disintegrated family threw somewhat clever insults at one another, and talk turned to religion and God. I would sit with my youngest cousins playing games instead of participating, willing the minutes to dissolve so I could leave. But before this happened small talk always ran out, and the sparky dynamics exploded into shouts and silence. Then the dessert.
The greatest irony of an Indian family is that they love nothing more than pudding, but their favourite compliment to give a dessert is “I like it because it’s not too sweet.” They’d nod with pursed lips, “yeh bohat acha hai ‘’. The tension floating around the now softer stomachs and distracted egos on pause.
When I did my masters degree in 2012 going to cheap BYOB Indian restaurants in East London became a trendy thing to do. People often looked to me for advice on what to order, and off hand I could throw out some dish names from hearing them around the house. The assumption didn’t bother me, suddenly my heritage felt useful. There was no more Parasite-esque sniff, the scent I hated became one that was desirable. The moment I realised that this enraged me was when a friend’s girlfriend — a white girl — attempted to eat kulfi, a pointed Indian ice cream, in a cloyingly provocative way. I exploded, with a mixture of jealousy and passive aggressive rage. How dare she appropriate my food? Mine. I felt a possession. I think it was passion. I think.
I had lived away from home for a few years on either side of that night. Each time they knew I was coming back my parents would do a run to Ambala for mitai. I almost took for granted the perfection of sitting eating rasmalai, creamy, cool and saffron laced. It tasted like a childhood even when I was alone, eating it when everyone else had gone to sleep. Those days when I stayed over, when I saw my dad over breakfast he would still call me “rasgulla cheeks.” I like sharing that story now.
I now live in America and am the first person in my family to immigrate by choice. As I find myself in unfamiliar places, I seek out mitai. A hint of zafran, a puff of cardamon and pista. There is no meal without dessert, no home that is mine. Yallah.