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.”