One of my first memories of feeling like a winner was when my dad high-fived me after I scooped a morsel of rice into my mouth, using nothing but my fingers. A fork and spoon rested neatly beside my plate, remaining squeaky clean from the start of the meal to the very end.
In that moment,
I felt like I'd won a marathon.
I felt like I'd walked on the moon.
I felt like the apple of my hero's eye.
My childhood was a cocktail of different cultures: my parents are Luso-Indian from Bombay, I was born and raised in Dubai, and our chihuahua is Mexican. I grew up on a predominantly Emirati diet, which was a scrumptious spread of rice and meat themed dishes. Occasionally, my babysitter, who was from Andhra Pradesh (and never let anyone who met her forget it) whipped up something to remind her of home. Her handi (cooking vessel) was as big as her heart, so she'd always make sure my parents and I were enjoying mouthfuls of her cooking before she'd tuck in.
I thought nothing could get hotter than Middle Eastern summers. I was wrong.
Sara's food was so hot, it could do orbits around the sun.
Because of the infernal heat of the spices she cooked her food with, my stomach would be ripped to shreds. Even worse would follow the next morning. My mother often served me Emirati curried meat and vegetables on rice while she and my father devoured Sara's famous chutneys, sambars, and fried greens. I'd feel left out of the party, and occasionally sneak in a fingertip of Sara's flaming south Indian sauces – only to instantly regret it.
One fine morning on a sweltering August day, I felt a fever coming on; like a thousand chilies were doing bhangra under my skin. It wasn't a fever, it was my first period. More than just the colour of my underwear changed after that day, the instruments with which I ate changed too. Every meal was accented with the clinking of cutlery against my plate. I stopped humming along to the old-timey Bollywood songs my dad would play in the car as he religiously picked my mom up from work. I openly rejected Sara's food because it was irrationally spicy...and Indian.
My adolescent years were increasingly whitewashed until I hit my 20s. My confused cultural identity would keep me awake at night and bore the ears off of strangers I'd try to explain my racial formula to. Despite living in the Middle East, a thick slice of my social circle is white. My university professors were white. My partner is white. I was white too, under my brown skin.
And then, just like the day I got my first period, something changed. I was tuning into Indian-Americans and British-Indians who were owning their heritage, after struggling with it for years. They were wearing their nationalities with the same pride that they would the bindis on their foreheads and the fuzz on their upper lips.
Suddenly, in my eyes, cutlery lost its charm.
I visit my parents every Thursday, and every week we settle down for a meal together. The sound hovering over the dinner table is usually that of my cutlery and us choking on our rice with bellyfuls of laughter. Recently, the sound of my cutlery scratching my plate was replaced by the soft whispers of squishy rice and curry being balled up by my fingers.
I look forward to Thursdays, like a dog by the front door when it's time for walkies, just to eat with my hands with people who also eat with their hands. Indian food doesn't taste better anywhere else than it does at my parents' house. And sure, my fingertips may smell like I've had an onion manicure, but I think of them as souvenirs of a damn fine meal with damn fine folks. And whenever a sneaky chilli bomb accidentally detonates in my mouth, I wish Sara was there to urgently scoop cooling yogurt into my mouth like she did when I was a child.
RIP, my second mom.