Pooja Desai, Honorable Mention
Other children counted down to Thanksgiving. I waited for August because of Ganesh Chaturthi – the one day of each year when I could satiate my craving for modaks – succulent sweets shaped by my grandmother’s hands. I watched entranced as Aaji, my grandmother, spooned delicately spiced caramelized coconut shreds into rice flour dough, enclosing it gently in dome-shaped “Indian dumplings”.
There was one rule: no eating the steamed modaks piled on steel plates. Not yet. “Ganesh Chaturthi is a day in which we honor the Lord Ganesha” Aaji would say. And so, I had to wait until they had been offered to the saffron statue of the deity with a prayer. Here, in my grandmother’s kitchen, I learned things worth waiting for require patience.
By the time I was nine, Aaji grew tired of my loitering in the kitchen and instead sat me in the large petrified wood chairs at the kitchen table handing me a clump of sticky dough. While we worked she told me stories in Marathi, tongue rounding the syllables of the language. Her words constructed the fortresses of Shivaji, the Maratha boy-king who with wit, defended his kingdom and achieved the impossible. She rebuilt India’s ancient empires, explained the sanctity of the Ganges. She told of the gods, especially Ganesh, the elephant headed one, remover of obstacles, protector of children, lover of modaks. Here, in my grandmother’s kitchen, I learned of the stories in the spices.
At eleven, I began to wonder about her life. She pulled out dusty albums identifying in sepia pictures the cat my late grandfather had hated but cuddled in sleep; the hospital that her mother, one of the first female doctors in India, founded; the dams, icons of industrialization, that she and my grandfather traveled to build. I had believed my grandmother to be a simple woman, ordinary, elegant, immaculate. I was wrong. Palms dusty with rice flour, I learned of her sacrifices to ensure her children were well educated and her husband able to pursue what he loved. I listened to her dreams deferred. I was touched by the mistakes, challenges and small victories that filled my grandmother’s life. Here, in my grandmother’s kitchen, I learned good people, like good food, have layers of taste. Sometimes you have to add some melted butter and take a bite to truly understand the depth of their flavor.
Aaji was diagnosed with breast cancer the year I turned thirteen. The emergency mastectomy left her on bed rest, hooked to IV tubes, unable to walk. By August she was at the kitchen table, a stainless steel plate of white dough before her. Awkwardly stationed at the counter, I attempted in graceless, garbled Marathi to explain the wonderment of the Wizarding World, detail the history of terracotta soldiers in Xian, China, familiarize her with the trite intricacies of middle school friendships. In our hands were modaks, hers round and elegant and mine shapelier than in years past.
Here, in my grandmother’s kitchen, I grew up.