“How do you open this thing?” Laddu’s cry is plaintive as she wrestles with a miniature Hawkins pressure cooker. I show her how to open and close the cooker. Ammu pipes up “Did you have one growing up?”
“Never!” I say. My ferocity surprises me though it shouldn’t. I try to explain to her how we were a “Prestige” family, not “Hawkins”. I fail miserably and the lack of cultural context hits me. I also realize this is a different generation and a childhood India would probably have made little difference. I tell her about “Sumeet” mixie and how I eventually moved on to “Preethi”. The brands mean little to her but the gravity in my voice seems to convey that this is important, to me, so she listens quietly.
“Why are you listening to that song over and over?”
“Indian music is boring! Can you listen to it when we are out of the house?”
The otherness of M. S. Subbulakshmi in a suburban American home has never felt so stark. I try to talk about what this music means to me. Words fail to convey what triggers are, how the mellifluous sounds of the veena, the voice of MSS all bring back memories of a time when I was happy, carefree, responsibility-free. I tell them instead of how young it makes me feel. I tell them of Geetha paati who listened to these songs on cassette tapes, her otherwise braided hair wet from a shower, the ends knotted. I tell them of lazy Sunday mornings. I tell them of oil lamps, the smell of nallaennai, a portal to simpler times.
Pattu is now engrossed. Bridging the cultural gap seems impossible. I try another tack. I tell them years from now, they will hear JoJoSiwa or Ariana Grande the way I listen to Vishnu Sahasranamam and their children will groan in collective disgust at their choice of music.
The air is light, the kids are laughing at my analogy.
Raising children in a world I do not understand much myself, I rely on old goalposts, ones that served my parents well. I realize without context those goal posts are meaningless. Crossing the cultural divide requires all the effort on my part, little from my children as they live ensconced in a world they understand well.
I have lingering regrets about the things that will die with me. Inane things like Hawkins pressure cookers, the smell of vadu maanga, the crunch of manohara paruppu thengai and the art of extracting pulp from tamarind. The inexorable march of time has never hit me this way before and I wonder what lost treasures linger in my Amma’s head.