Monday, December 6, 2010

In Ashima's shoes


"For being a foreigner Ashima is beginning to realise, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy - a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts."
~ Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

Seven winters back when I had first read The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's heartrending tale, it had stirred and brewed a little storm inside me. Since then I have gone back to it, in chunks and bits, like a fate-worn lover who has to return to the memories, living and losing at the same time. The love affair continues, only this time I am one of them from the pages. Ashima - a demure Bengali woman born in Calcutta, brought up amidst a fierce sense of culture and draped in unpretentious tangail sarees. She marries Ashoke, an engineering student at MIT and accompanies him for a new life to America - "the land of opportunities".

Ashima's life in the States is shaped out of many realities - the regular calls to Fulton fish market in the hope of a lucky catch of rohu or ilish, the much dreaded driving lessons when she would cringe her face and push the accelerator uneasily which would result in a beeline of traffic honking impatiently behind her, the mounting vexation during the customer care calls when she has to spell every single alphabet of 'Ganguli' unfailingly and with examples. Prior to my life as a foreigner, this futile yet continuous search of one's identity and the reluctant unraveling of oneself to blend in, both physically and mentally, had not been this huge a part of me. Now I, too, am ashima - one who does not have boundaries - for one simply cannot afford any in the desperate confusion of the old and the new.

My solidarity with Ashima transgresses the boundaries of age and experience. A surge of tender pity grips me when anxious and alone in the final trimester of pregnancy she craves for jhaal muri (an East Indian snack of puffed rice and spices) and quite helplessly tosses chopped onions into a bowl of Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts. There was not much choice for an Indian's culinary comforts in the America of the 70s. Ashima's most intimidating task, more so because she wears her Indianness with aplomb, is to understand and accept the American ways of her children who are themselves trapped in a huge chasm of cultural mores. How much could one fight one's way out of the linguistic and cultural barriers back then?

Even after a good thirty years nothing much has changed. Foodwise, yes, a lot has. With the mushrooming of Indian grocery stores and restaurants in almost every corner of the States, pleasing one's taste buds isn't a questionable dream anymore. Also, what was once the struggle for existence has undergone a vast change over the last twenty years resulting in an unbecoming vanity fair. But the old haunting feeling of rootlessness sits still in the same dusty corner of the heart. Festivals come and go, seasons spring and fall, but the ache remains. I have been walking in Ashima's shoes for the past three years, across six states and on a multitude of roads. With each step the bite has become worse, fanning the sore of longing till the wound feels like a second skin. And thus another day breaks, impregnated with a perpetual unknown wait...

10 comments:

  1. "But the old haunting feeling of rootlessness sits still in the same dusty corner of the heart. Festivals come and go, seasons spring and fall, but the ache remains. I have been walking in Ashima's shoes for the past three years, across six states and on a multitude of roads. With each step the bite has become worse, fanning the sore of longing till the wound feels like a second skin. And thus another day breaks, impregnated with a perpetual unknown wait..."

    Could your articulation have been more painful and more real! "Loved it" really is an understatement. You made pain poignant.

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  2. Very touching and real......as i always say evry single word in your article hs life to it...xcellent :D

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  3. @ Som, your words just made my day! That I could make pain poignant, is a huge compliment. I just can't stop preening! :)

    @ Toys, I am glad you liked it. Thank you so much for the kind words.

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  4. I do not know what to write in appreciation for such a wonderful description of intrinsic feelings nicely coupled with excerpts and instances from Jhumpa Lahiri...m running short of words to exactly put down the beauty of the write up that has compelled me to think.....

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  5. I loved it.. I loved it so much!! This is my best from your lot.
    Waiting to see you publish a book of your own with such lovely feelings.
    I wish Baba get to see this writeup of yours.
    He is just gonna love you for your skills now :-)
    Very well expressed Mickey!

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  6. @ Apali, I knew you would understand this, since you too have been one of the Ashimas for a good one year now. Thanks a bunch!

    @ Apa, thank you!! Even I was thinking about Baba... May be I should give him a whole bunch of print outs of these posts when I go next year. I know he will be mighty pleased! :)

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  7. "But the old haunting feeling of rootlessness sits still in the same dusty corner of the heart"

    beautifully written, couldn't help reading it over again, this so echoes what I was feeling but not being able to articulate on my own ..

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  8. @ Gugun, thank you so much, I'm glad you like it.

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  9. Micki , The last few lines are just so heart rendering and eloquent ...love em

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  10. Excellent article. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well.
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