My Mother’s Indian Pickles Helped Me Salvage 2020

Nothing is cancelled. Everything lies in wait.

Navarathri begins in two weeks. That’s a hard sentence to type right now. In an ordinary year, this is when my brain would be in overdrive: buzzing with schedules, counting gift bags by the dozen, planning special sundals for each of the ten days of the holiday, figuring out a color scheme for the decorations, plotting which of the dishes I’d clipped and saved would make the cut for this year’s menu…the list goes on. But of course this is no ordinary year.

India is a polyglot nation, a land well-versed in multiples of everything: languages, traditional foods, and clothing styles. Our holiday calendar is dotted with nods to many different belief systems, and people will lobby hard for their personal favorites. Diwali is the shiny braggart, winning most popularity contests by a mile. But my heart will always and forever belong to Navarathri, “the festival of nine nights” that inspires such a sensory overload of memories, just thinking about it can summon up a golf-ball-sized lump in my throat.

The best equivalent I can think of for the feelings Navarathri evokes in me is December in America. Planning is extended, nostalgia is high, and joy is concentrated. I know millions are mourning what the holiday season may look like this winter, but I’m already there. News flash: the sorrow is real.

Sometime last month, when it had fully sunk in that we would not be hosting our annual Navarathri gathering this year, I got on the phone with my mother. I was also coming to terms with the fact that it could be another year before I saw my parents again (we had planned to travel to India this summer). The homesickness was particularly strong that evening, and in a desperate moment, I asked if she’d consider making and mailing some of my favorite Indian pickles. She sounded both shocked and thrilled that I’d asked — I should mention it’s out of character for me to inconvenience people in my life in any way. (I know, it’s a sign of deeper issues, but that’s better saved for another time.)

Quickly, my blurted-out request of “could you maybe send me some poondu and avakkai oorugai (garlic and raw mango pickles)?” turned into a massive enterprise. Over the next ten minutes, my mother suggested a quick-fire list of other Indian treats I loved, constructing what I can only think of as a nostalgia compassion package. I threw politeness and caution to the wind. “Yes please,” I almost yelled over WhatsApp, “Yes to all of it!”

Last Friday, after a week of tracking DHL’s delivery service across multiple flight and truck rides, the doorbell finally rang. Even the cardboard, bound in too much tape and multiple address labels, smelled like India. Saying I felt like a kid at a candy store for the first time would be a gross understatement. My children showed up as I tore into the box, like they too could tell something special was happening.

Reverently. That’s the only word that fits. I caressed the vacuum-sealed plastic packets that emerged from within like someone might touch a long lost but never forgotten lover. I held each one up for a deep whiff, and my nostrils, lungs, and soul filled. In that moment, it no longer mattered what Navarathri looked like this year. This box, I realized, was why I could never be fully American, no matter how long I lived here. It wasn’t just tapioca crisps, cashew burfi, and chili pickles that tied me to my homeland and made moorlessness a permanent affliction. It was my mother’s recipes for spice mixes that I stubbornly still refuse to learn, despite the voice inside that keeps reminding me this is foolish. It was the nameless, shapeless everything that dwelled in between, that stole into the gaps and spaces in our Bay Area house and made itself completely at home.

Navarathri in the region of India where I come from is a celebration of the divine female spirit. It is symbolically represented by golu, a parade of dolls arranged on steps, a literal stairway to heaven. My assemblage of paper mâché and clay dolls, some handed down over four generations, will largely lie quiet in their garage cupboard this year. I’ll pull a select few out of storage to mark the occasion, along with the graceful arch of brass lamps my grandmother gave me before she passed. We’ll have a pared-down version of our Navarathri festivities with close family. We’ll wear our saris and dhotis, dress our children in their nicest pavadais and kurtas. I’ll do what I always do and cook a traditional meal for people I love. And in pride of place, I’ll serve my mother’s pickles, made in her South Indian kitchen, transported across lands and seas to make their way home to my table.

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Often reading, writing, or teaching. Always cooking, baking, and eating. Words in Human Parts, Curious, Modern Parent. Connect on Twitter @purnima_mani

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