Contest #69 shortlist ⭐️

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Asian American Desi Coming of Age

  I look at my father’s sugar-crusted hands, his shocked eyes, and I know that I am breaking his heart. It is the worst time to say anything, to just blurt it out like this, while we are cooking and preparing the house for guests – especially because my father is busy doing the one thing that I am about to tell them that I will never do. But I can’t hold it in any longer, and I need to say something now, otherwise I’ll just be delaying the inevitable and probably have an anxiety-induced breakdown in the meantime.

We are standing in the kitchen while my family is scattered around the living room tidying up, pretending not to listen and clearly listening. Soft footsteps approach, and my mother is now with us in the kitchen. “What is this, Sonal?” she says. She is shocked; I am ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” I say miserably. “But I can’t do it. I’m no good at cooking. Everything I touch comes out wrong, and tastes terrible. Even the simple ladoos I try to make fall apart.”

“You have to practice, Sonal,” my father explodes. “You don’t practice enough! All you do is sit in your room, and write in that journal…”

It didn’t matter how much I practiced. I always made a new and interesting assortment of mistakes when attempting to make mithai – Indian sweets. A brief catalogue: Too much ghee. Too little ghee. Burn the ghee. Burn the…well, everything.

But I know they don’t want to hear that, and won’t hear that. Even if I were to shout it at them, the words would glance off their Selective Hearing Armor.

“I want to be a writer.” I blurt out what has been reverberating in my mind for the last three years.

My parents gape. Again, terrible timing – but I’m not good at this, at speaking succinctly and articulating my thoughts on the spot. I’m most comfortable with a sheet of paper in front of me or with my fingers resting on a keyboard. There, I am in my element – a fish in water, a bird in flight. I can wrestle the messiest, most tangled thoughts into submission and give them structure, or turn them into something beautiful. On paper, I can reshape anguish into poetry.

I am at my most comfortable when I am writing my thoughts, not speaking them. And so this conversation is coming out all wrong, and upsetting my parents, and that’s the last thing I want.  

           “I’m sorry,” I say again. “I can’t make sweets. I’m so bad at it. I don’t enjoy it. And it just makes me depressed. But writing-”

“Depressed,” my father scoffs, while my mother frowns. “Again with this…and you think writing will make you not depressed?”

Actually, I’m fairly certain that being depressed is a requirement for being a writer. I opt to stay silent instead of voicing this. Besides, his accent is getting thicker by the minute, which is a testimony to his growing agitation.

“It’s your duty, Sonal. Your duty to your family. We’re counting on you.” He speaks as though this is all that needs to be said.

“I can’t,” I repeat, and I find myself on the verge of tears. “I can’t cook. I don’t like cooking. Why don’t you ask Mahesh?” Mahesh, my cousin. A professionally trained chef who, in a relatively short timeframe, collected a shockingly large following on social media by posting professional-quality photos of his glossy, gorgeous desserts on a regular basis. He seemed the obvious choice to me. But…

“Because you are our daughter, Sonal,” my mother says. “Mahesh...” she waves her hands dismissively. “He married into the family. It has to be you. Not some cousin.”

My heart sinks. Having my parents consider shifting the responsibility to Mahesh had been what I was banking on. Whenever I imagined this conversation, this is what would turn the tables, and help them reconsider my role in the family. This conversation was going even worse than anticipated, which I didn’t think was possible.

My father gives me a hard look. “When your azoba comes over for dinner,” he warns, “don’t say a word to him.”

“He’s still recovering from his surgery,” my mother adds sternly.

My father turns back to shaping the ladoos. “We’ll discuss this later,” he says curtly, and the conversation is over.

My grandfather had started the family business of making sweets as a much younger man in India. By the time my father was born, he had established himself as one of the most talented mithai-walas in Pune and opened several stores which were now run by various uncles and aunts, who trained my cousins in the art of making mouthwatering sweets: Raas gulas that were plump, snow-white and smelling of rosewater; kaajukatli, diamond-shaped sweets made of ground cashews and covered with shimmering silver; and round barfis that ranged in flavor from carrot to mango to pistachio. My father had carried my grandfather’s dream to America, where we owned and operated the only American branch of his store – which was important, my father kept reminding me, because it was unlikely that my cousins in India would want to carry on the business once they went to college and built their own futures. His biggest fear, we all knew, was that his father’s dream and hard work would die with him – and with that, a precious part of our family’s culture. I think my father wanted to ensure that some part of my grandfather lived on – he had only doubled down on his passion and energy towards the mithai shop as my grandfather grew smaller and more bent with age. My older brothers had gone into medicine, and owned their own practices. I was the only one left, my parents’ last hope to keep their traditions alive in the country that had adopted them.

I stay out of my parents’ way as they prepare for dinner. There is a cold heaviness in my stomach; I try journaling in an attempt to exorcise my anxiety and agitation, to trap these feelings onto paper, where they can’t gnaw at me. It doesn’t work.

When the rest of the family comes over that evening, I find myself sitting next to my grandfather, laughing and joking and generally feeling like a fraud. When there is a lull in the conversation, he says, “Beta, come with me to the kitchen.” The term of endearment causes my guilt, which has been sitting at comfortably manageable levels, to flare up.

I go with him, and once we reach the kitchen, he asks me what’s wrong. I want to tell him everything, but I am afraid to. I don’t want to disappoint him, the way I have disappointed my parents. Furthermore, I love him too much to hurt him in this way. Besides, my mother’s comment about his surgery is lodged firmly in my mind. I say nothing.

“What’s wrong,” he urges in Hindi. “You have seemed sad all evening.”

I shake my head. I do not know which is worse: Lying to him, or hurting him.

At that moment, my mother comes into the kitchen. My grandfather looks at her, concerned. “Priya,” he says, “What is wrong with Sonal?”

My mother freezes momentarily; and, just as quickly, thaws and moves fluidly into action. Nothing, my mother assures him with a big smile. Nothing at all. Sonal’s just tired.

“Tired” is their favorite word to describe my depression. The implication following this word is, You’re fine. Now smile. But I can’t smile, and I can’t bottle it up any longer and pretend that I’m fine. Fueled by a tangled menagerie of emotions that have been simmering all day, I snap. I look to my grandfather and blurt, in my typical messy way: “I don’t want to make sweets. I don’t want to run the store.” And I burst into tears.

My mother is horrified, embarrassed. “She’s just very tired, very stressed from her schoolwork-” she lies, and grabs my arm to haul me away. But my grandfather silences her with a look, and gently lays a hand on my arm.

Beta, is this true?” he asks softly. “You don’t want to make sweets? You have no interest in learning?” Sniffling, I nod. My grandfather stands quietly for a moment, absorbing this; then looks at me and says simply, “Then you will not make sweets.” My mother stands perfectly still as a mess of emotions flicker in her eyes. By marrying my father, she had been dragged into the family business; there is a part of her, no doubt, that is struggling to absorb the unfairness of this. By this time, my father has arrived in the kitchen. My grandfather turns to give him a withering look. “Look how upset she is. What kind of pressure have you been putting on her?”

“She needs to carry on the tradition, Baba,” my father argues, defensive and embarrassed.

My grandfather waves him away. “You know she can’t cook. Why don’t you ask Mahesh?” I begin to calm down – bizarrely, my grandfather advocating my lack of skill is incredibly comforting in this moment.

“But what will she do, then?” my father says, exasperated. “Her math and science scores are abysmally low. She won’t be able to get into medical school, like her brothers. What else can she do?”

“Well,” my grandfather says, “She’s an excellent storyteller. I imagine she’ll be a writer.”

November 27, 2020 20:07

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47 comments

Aesha Amin
20:34 Dec 04, 2020

Hi! The plot is so wonderfully simple and representative of Indian culture in a way. Sometimes the elders can be more understanding and more flexible than their own children. It’s surprising how my Baa says it’s okay to not touch her feet every time we meet but my mother insists that I do. Anyways, I loved the plot so much. A bit like my story and a bit like most Indian girls’. Thank you for writing this!

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Korra Shere
13:10 Dec 09, 2020

Thanks for your comment! I'm glad this story was relatable to you; as a writer, that's great to hear.

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Ravi Srivastava
15:56 Mar 16, 2021

Hi, Being an Indian, I can see that the story is a true mirror of the typical middle-class Indian families. and great writing, too. Hope to read more stories from you.

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That Asian Creep
18:54 Dec 22, 2020

Wow... truly amazing. You should really write more stories... so far only 1 amazing submission! As an NRI the desi touch was lovely. You have gained a follower

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Korra Shere
21:37 Jan 29, 2021

Thank you! Sometimes I write stories but haven't "perfected" them by the deadline. I don't like the idea of posting stories I'm not 100% happy with, haha. But yes - more stories will come soon! Thanks for the follow!

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Josh C
08:39 Dec 11, 2020

Congrats on making the shortlist! Great story, it had me really hungry half way through reading it. Simple, concise and enjoyable.

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Korra Shere
20:10 Dec 11, 2020

Thanks very much!

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Scout Tahoe
04:01 Dec 05, 2020

Congratulations on the shortlist. :)

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Korra Shere
13:06 Dec 09, 2020

Thank you!

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16:47 Dec 04, 2020

Wonderful job on your shortlist, Tejal!

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Korra Shere
18:45 Dec 04, 2020

Thank you very much!

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The Girl
16:42 Dec 04, 2020

Hey! This was one great story. you were able to capture Sonal's turmoil perfectly. I have to ask: did this happen to you? Ignore if I am being too nosy.

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Korra Shere
18:45 Dec 04, 2020

Hi there. Thanks for commenting. This hasn't happened to me, but I was able to draw from similar experiences where I felt disregarded ;P (Also, if I were Sonal, I would be thrilled that my family owned a sweets shop.)

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The Girl
20:01 Dec 04, 2020

Ha ha😄

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Fraz Naqvi
23:23 Nov 19, 2021

Hey Korra my name is Mohammad, I really liked this piece you wrote, I'm actually using it for a performance in my Oral-Interpretation class. I like the whole piece, it's very descriptive, helping me see what's going on. Thank you, hope you write some more pieces. Would love to talk to you about the performance if you're interested.

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Mx Sb
02:47 Oct 28, 2021

I'm sorry but I'm going to go against the grain here. I found the story predictable. It is also typical of most if not all "Indian" stories unless one is R K Narayan. But even Narayan's stories became predictable and typical of "Indian life". This is true if you view Bollywood and Kollywood movies with a critical eye. And, as far as Shere's story goes, the bit about "writing" and "writer" again -- for me -- makes the story typical and predictable and, sadly, barely original.

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Jeanette Harris
16:19 Oct 04, 2021

I like how she blurts out she can't cook, she like to write. great story

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Mo Ferdause
00:48 Sep 28, 2021

Beautifully written 👏

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Zen Wren
18:07 Aug 19, 2021

Really enjoyed your story. I’m sure the tale resonates with a lot of people. I hope you’re working on more good things..!

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Aditya Kumar
04:52 Aug 06, 2021

It was good. I really liked the plot and cohesive depiction of something that is deeply ingrained in Indian culture. Thanks for bringing that up albeit the ending looks a little unrealistic and superficial or a little dramatic IMO.

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Iris Orona
14:03 Jun 10, 2021

Wonderful story!

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Nandini Vanmali
17:18 Apr 30, 2021

I loved how the author included the desi touches. As an Indian, I found the plot to be incredibly realistic and relatable. I also loved how they represented Indian culture. However, I think the author should include more conflict into the story to make it more interesting and keep the reader more hooked. Still, amazing story and great job!

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Saurabh Singh
03:47 Mar 30, 2021

Great representation of typical Indian culture!

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Keya M.
15:28 Mar 03, 2021

Great story! I love the first line, particularly, "sugar-crusted hands". The sense of tradition that's so ingrained in this family gives real meaning to it, and it feels so lifelike. Awesome job!

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10:13 Feb 09, 2021

I do love your story. It's relatable to me. I am Sonal. I recently disappointed my family by pursuing my passion in writing.

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Korra Shere
23:17 Feb 09, 2021

Hey there! I'm happy that the story resonated with you, but sorry to hear that you had difficulties with your family. Hopefully, once your family sees the joy that writing brings to you, they'll see your point of view, and be in your corner.

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Stanley Witham
02:39 Feb 01, 2021

I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Thanks for sharing.

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Gene Rhim
11:33 Jan 27, 2021

Thank you for sharing, Korra! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Reading it was a real treat. :) Gene

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Korra Shere
21:34 Jan 29, 2021

Thank you, Gene! Much appreciated :)

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