We stopped leaving the garage door open when we were cooking because I told my mom the police were saying criminals had been stealing equipment from garages. My dad was away on an engineering work contract in Dubai like half the Uncles I knew, so we kids were left to help our moms with everything from house maintenance to legal compliance. Back then there was no internet and overseas phone calls to Dubai were expensive, so there were a great many things left unreported to the dads. To compensate for this lack of communication, my mom and all the Aunties dutifully reported everything and anything to each other, forming an Alief-wide Desi wives network. They’d spend several hours a day stretching the extra long coil of their kitchen’s wall-mounted phones as they tended to house work and the just-as- important work of informing one another whose husband was laid off and who’s contract was renewed, when Fiesta would be getting the next shipment of good mangoes, and where Coke was on sale this week.
Most aunties in Alief didn’t work outside the house, but half of the Desi aunties in Alief ran a side hustle from their home. There were several other aunties running mini catering businesses, like my mom. One or two had some kind of jewelry business because their family in India were in the business. You could narrow down which ones likely sold gold or diamonds because they had metal bars on their windows and doors. Of course not everyone who had caged their houses were brown jewelry dealers, some were scared white people who hadn’t yet moved to Sugar Land or Katy, those were emerging suburbs with fewer crimes and less brown people. A handful of the more self-assured aunties had secured real estate licenses and begun catering to Desi clientele who were also moving to Sugar Land or Katy. Then there was an auntie who ran an unlicensed beauty salon in her guest bedroom, mostly she threaded eyebrows and female mustaches. Bikini waxes weren’t a thing, at least officially, because nobody would go to a fellow Desi to get it done. Hell, just shaving your legs was a confession of interest in attracting the opposite sex, which was a super terrible interest to have. "Besharam!", shameless!, the aunties would cluck judgmentally at Hindi movie actresses wearing shorts and tube tops. But I heard some Desis living here in Alief got more than their arms waxed, and I thought how they must be absolutely fearless to be so besharam. I secretly admired the beautician auntie who served the besharam among us, quietly and without judgement tending to whatever a woman needed done in order to feel good. I wished my mom was a beautician doing modern American things instead of a cook making Desi food as if we were all still in India.
My mom had lugged two oversized, overweight bags stuffed with jumbo stainless steel pots and masala from India in order to authentically cook naasta, snacks, and typical Gujju food like daal and tamaata-bataata shaak for people’s parties. Before going to India to visit her parents, she had fresh red chillies, ajwain, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, and other seeds and pods delivered to my grandparent’s rooftop back in Valsad so they could roast under the sun for a week. When she arrived, she called three women over for two days to ground all the masala using a giant stone mortar and pestle. She sat up there on the baking hot rooftop to supervise them, nitpicking about every little thing. I’d never seen my mom be the boss of anyone so this was interesting. Back in Houston she exhibited a stealthy fear of authority figures, and a lot of people fell under this category. White people in general, police, security guards, teachers, doctors, receptionists, and grocery store clerks were seen as people to be obeyed. But for her masala, she scaled her wall of fear and straight-up lied to the US Customs officer and said we didn’t have any uncooked agricultural products in our luggage. I wasn’t sure if the spices counted but I knew for sure the plant roots of half a dozen Desi veggies we had wrapped with some good Desi soil intact was definitely uncooked so I had tugged at her sari to remind her about that, to which she responded by stomping on my foot.
It would probably crack actual criminals up to learn that my mom feared them stealing her pots and fresh masala stored in our rusty old SEARS garage fridge, but I knew that to my mom this was a very plausible criminal plot. From within those steel pots she dished out her self-worth. “Eh-vuh-reee wun liked my kadhi soooo much,” she’d report to her children as if we had asked.
My mom had been married off a month before graduating from college. She met my dad once, they ate dhosas at a snack shop on their one and only “date” before their parents fixed a wedding date to fit within my dad’s three week wife-hunting trip to India. My mom had hoped to complete her degree in another month but his time was more important than hers from the start, I guess. So this vegetarian, non-English speaking, twenty-year old, high school graduate moved to America with a man she had known for two weeks. My dad tried to make her eat hamburgers in order to fit into America and also because back then there were no stores where you could buy Indian groceries. She resisted and figured out how to make Indian food by improvising with American groceries. Over time, she built a reputation and other Desis started asking her to cater for their parties. The steel pots were my mom’s gold. Of course she could imagine someone wanting to steal them.
The truth of why we cooked with the garage door closed was that one day when Henry Lopez and I were walking home from the bus, he had sniffed the air and groaned “EWWWWW!” and then pretended to gag and vomit as he shouted “Something smells like a gigantic FART!”. I knew the smell well, my mom was cooking oondhyuu and pooris for an order that night. Oondhiyu made her a little famous around Houston, she grew the paapdi and rutaaru in our backyard for it after smuggling their roots from India. There were about 25 different spices and ingredients in her authentic oondhiyuu, and half the vegetables only grew for a few months. Back in India, people apparently celebrated the season by having oondhiyuu parties. I figured it must be like the crawfish boil parties that non-Desi, meat and fish eating people in Houston go crazy about. Oondhiyuu smelled pretty good to me, but every spring when the grocery stores boiled crawfish for sale, my family silently gagged at the smells but smiled politely when we were offered samples. Everyone has to make a living, this we understood. Oondhiyuu season was second only to Diwali in terms of my mom’s catering profits and with oil and gas companies laying people off every other month, my mom’s cooking was our safety net in case my dad got sent back abruptly from Dubai. It hadn’t happened to us yet, but we lived in fear of it.
She did all her catering cooking in the garage because my dad said the heat from the cooking drove up the AC bill unnecessarily. So she’d put on one of her Indian nighties that permitted the most air flow while covering her legs for modesty, squat on a foot stool and preside over a couple of portable gas stoves placed in the middle of the garage floor. She’d spread newspapers out on plastic folding tables and plop the freshly fried pooris onto them. And all this is what Henry Lopez did not need to see and judge. My mom, long black hair in a single braid down her back, in a bright paisley muu-muu, sweat dripping from her forehead, methane-perfumed clouds billowing from the gigantic vat below her. I could just imagine her looking up from her pot and smiling, offering Henry a poori and Henry laughing or gagging or fake puking. I winced at the thought, which I took to be a certain premonition, and my pulse and my pace quickened.
Henry and I didn’t exactly walk home together because the laws of the universe would never permit such a thing. Physics dictated that his longer, sports star legs carried him further, faster than me. And social justice required me to stay well enough away from Henry so that nobody could misconstrue my presence as evidence of being his middle school popularity equal, much less girlfriend. To sidle up next to Henry would be to risk his scorn, it was far safer to walk well behind him and imagine that he secretly liked me. But Henry’s ruckus had to be shut down before he reached my house so I hugged my Trapper Keeper extra hard as I ran to catch up to him, my French Horn case banged violently and rhythmically against my knee with each footfall. A few pieces of loose leaf paper flew out, probably the math homework I finished in home room so I could watch Facts of Life with my undivided attention. I let them fly in the wind, I didn’t care, all that mattered was intercepting loud-mouthed Henry before he got to my driveway.
My house came first, before Henry’s. As I neared him, I pretended to also be repulsed and thoroughly confused by the stench. I screwed up my mouth and eyes emphatically as I looked quizzically into Henry’s eyes as if to say “What hideousness is this?”. We had eight more houses and one intersection before mine. You could get to Henry’s house from the intersecting street too, but Henry liked to tease our neighbor’s dog so he preferred the longer route past my house. In my daydreams I imagined Henry and I becoming a secret item, secret because of course he was actually well above my station in middle school life and anyway I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend much less a non-Gujarati, not-even-Indian boyfriend. For such a relationship to be out in the public wold be the hilt of being besharam. Sometimes I’d dream that I’d talk Henry out of teasing Snoopy, explaining that Snoopy was Mrs. Polk’s only living friend and that he was just barking and going crazy because he needed to protect Mrs. Polk. In the dreams, Henry would give in and promise not to tease Snoopy. But that was a dream and deep down I knew that Henry was a real life jerk, which was why he was popular and maybe why I was not.
I’d need to distract Henry with something more fun than teasing Snoopy. I recalled how girls in sitcoms hit on their male targets and felt that my whole life of TV watching had prepared me for this moment. Without thinking, I launched my offensive.
“Hey, can I come over to your house? We could maybe watch TV or something? Your mom’s not home for a couple of hours right?” I managed to say most of this without stuttering, as if I was a feathered hair American girl in cut-off jean shorts and spaghetti-strap top blowing fruity bubble gum bubbles rather than a lightly mustached Desi girl in Kmart Wrangler jeans clutching an over-stuffed Trapper Keeper in one hand and a French Horn case in the other, my upper lip fuzz glistening with tiny sweat beads. My face blazed with shame and my stomach braced for the gutt punch, and yet still, somehow, a sliver in me thought maybe he did secretly like me.
Henry’s eyes narrowed as he peered at me, as if I’d gone crazy. He gazed down at my pragmatic tennis shoes and moved his gaze up my stiff Wrangler jeans, my JCPenney logo polo and sweaty armpits, and finally my glasses resting lop-sided at the tip of my bulbous nose. “No way, Jose. Gag me!” And with that, he turned toward the intersection and headed directly home, my mother’s pride left intact while my own lay shattered on the suburban sidewalk.
I wanted to cry but I was too close to home. As I approached our driveway my mom looked up and smiled. “Garam-garam poori jo-ye? Do you want nice warm pooris?”. It was just as I’d imagined, only Henry wasn’t there to insult her for being resilient, resourceful and gracious. I smiled and nodded yes, put down my Trapper Keeper and French Horn to reach for a poori and began telling her about the police officer that stopped me at the corner to let me know bad guys were checking out garages for things to steal. Maybe we should keep the garage door closed, I casually suggested.