Desi Asian American Sad

"Does the presence of something outweigh its absence? Or is it the other way around?" I said to no one in specific, communally munching on Garlic Naan and Haleem with my family.

My mouth was a cacophony of flavor, an explosion of my Pakistani heritage complete with a mix of my family’s modernism tied in to make it more mild than usual. It was irresistible; the sharp taste of the garlic in the Naan beautifully contrasted with the subtleness of the Haleem, resulting in a perfect landscape for my tongue to explore. But something, I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly, was missing; a tinge of hollowness against an expanse of infinity.

"It all depends on the person, beta. Everything comes down to perspective. You may find it helpful to be grateful for the things that are, rather than sulk over those that aren’t," replied a masculine voice so soft it was almost like velvet. Baba.

He sat completely opposite me, his gentle hazel eyes fixated on something far, far away. You may have expected him to sit on the head seat of the table, but that was and forever will be reserved for my Nani. Matriarchy was not uncommon in my culture, it was just that women were not as vocal as men when it came to having a sense of power.

"Oho! Stop with this philosophical gibberish! Eat, eat, eat! I didn’t stand in the kitchen for 5 hours for this!" yelled a voice not so soft, not so velvety.

My mother was a simple woman, she’d stay at home and continue to stay at home. Most may think it a pointless existence with no impact, but the truth is, without her, the house would be entirely dysfunctional.

"Mama! This is a very important conversation! I am trying to figure out what is missing in the food!" I replied, the frustration of something you couldn’t grasp that was right on the tip of your tongue fueling my tone of voice. Literally.

Just as she was about to open her mouth to yell back, Baba gave her a delicate smile, his dimples forcing her to surrender, her crossed arms a sort of white flag. I beamed to myself, hearing her ‘Hmph!’ and the all too familiar mumbling of how our father had spoiled us continuously. I shifted my gaze around the dining table and stopped once I reached my younger sister who, much to my dismay, was much taller than me.

"What are you looking at!?" she shot at me, her eyebrows raised in a disorderly fashion.

I didn’t reply. I stared at her clothes, the citrus pattern on her Shalwar Kameez stared right back at me. The warm hues of the fabric nudged at something in my head, almost mischievously as if to mock me for not knowing the answer… something so obvious it was only justified to make a joke out of me. I closed my eyes, the abhorrent fruits now burnt on my eyelids after staring at them for so long.

"I got it! I got it, Ma! It’s the lemons! You forgot to give us lemons this time! That was what was missing all along!" I yelped with joy, the relief of discovery calming me down.

It was as if everyone collectively gasped together, my realization being contagious. My khala, who had previously been silent, suddenly groaned as if to say ‘about time someone figured it out!’. She got out of her seat in an instant, grabbing her purse and sunglasses – ‘Alright, I’ve had enough! I’m going to get lemons right this second, that is final!’ she stated, her decisiveness enough to silence everyone about to refute her actions. No one dared to speak until the harsh sound of the door slamming filled the room.

"So, Baba, you see! The absence does outweigh the presence after all. Zeliha Khala couldn’t tolerate it anymore!’ I squealed, excited that this strange turn of events had aided me in reaching a conclusion.

"But look around you, beta! Everyone else tolerated it. Some didn’t even notice! And the rest were indifferent," he shrugged.

I didn’t know what to reply, so I continued eating. We might not have had lemons, but Mama would never forget the chopped-up ginger! Positioning it carefully on my plate, making sure it was evenly spread, I popped another morsel in my mouth. The juicy crunch of the almost overpowering vegetable filled me with glee. Oh, how I loved our food!

The blanket of gentle gossip quickly faded away when the Azaan started, the beauty of the Imam’s voice enough to silence even the birds chirping outside. We unanimously lowered our heads in respect, the sheer rawness of the speaker washed over us, making us feel suspended in an astral plane of our faith and our faith alone. Even though we did not fully understand the meaning of his words, the power of his voice alone shook us to our core, reminding us how insignificant we as beings were, eternally destined to be superior in this world but inferior in the next.

Sitting amongst our thoughts for a while after the call to prayer ended, we refrained from speaking. It wasn’t because of any restrictions or limitations, but it was a choice. A choice to stay still and marinate in our contemplative isolation.

Once we felt complete in ourselves, we cleared the table and sat in a collective sense of excitement. What was now was the anticipation of what every age group loved and couldn’t help but succumb to: dessert! The child-like greediness was apparent in the eyes of all of us at the table as we savored the Kheer, Gulab Jamun, and Seviyan placed in front of us. Hastily, grabbing our respective bowls we all poured the sweetness to our hearts’ contents, the joy of something so trivial outweighing the true anxieties in our lives.

"So... what did I miss?" said Zeliha Khala, finally back, albeit at the very end, with what seemed like shopping bags of everything but lemons.

5 years later.

No matter how much we would pretend like dinners were the way they were before, it was never enough. All the vibrant tones of our culture had died down into a melancholy grey. Maybe it was a punishment. Maybe we deserved it. For abandoning our motherland, of course.

Baba wanted a better life, Mama would not hear of it, but she had no choice but to leave behind the land of all she knew, to monotonous grey plains of nothingness. The window in our new dining room looked out upon the same, depressing structure of what the Westerners referred to as a home for what seemed like eternity. Zeliha Khala had tried her best and covered the harrowing view with traditional-style curtains, but nothing, not even the brightly colored mirrors on the fabric could prevent the dismal light from swarming into the room and drowning all remains of individuality.

I did not ponder philosophically this time, or argue with Mama about how my conversation was more important. Instead, I ate, once again, Haleem and slowly slid the morsels into my mouth. The silence was deafening, unsaid words hung in the air, jabbing at us mercilessly. This time, there were no lemons, no ginger, no Garlic Naan. I didn’t ask for any. Neither did Zeliha Khala make an attempt to run away again. The Haleem was made from a cheap instant packet at the local ‘Asian Superstore’, which took all of Mama’s self-respect to cook. You could tell the food was made devoid of enthusiasm, but no one complained. No one spoke.

Nani stared into space, mumbling frantically, her eyes widening with fear every now and then. Her dementia had gotten worse, but we did not have sufficient funds to help her; healthcare in the West was too expensive. The lines between the Matriarchy and Patriarchy in our family blurred, leaving a puddle of a singular compulsion: to survive.

Even the clothes we wore had dulled; they felt like prison uniforms. There were no eye-catching citrus fruits on my sister’s bleak navy blue T-shirt that I could stare at until I felt half mad. There were no raw calls to prayers, just an artificial replacement of the applications on our phones. There were no sessions of gentle gossip or introspective reflections.

But worst of all, there was no dessert. All the sweetness of our culture had been sucked away by the void of industrialization.

I realized something very important that very dinner: the current absence of my culture outweighed the past presence of it. I was right all along.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

December 10, 2023 11:44

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Kristi Gott
03:03 Dec 17, 2023

Wow, this is a very powerful story. The insightful depth of the details and meanings make it special. It speaks to those whose way of life has been disrupted or changed, and helps others to understand what someone is experiencing when this happens. Very well written. Unique and memorable. I like the authenticity and genuine feelings in it.


Raniyah Ad
11:57 Dec 18, 2023

Thank you so much! I really appreciate it!


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