Sooji, Sakar, Badam, Ghee
Tanuja Desai Hidier | Photos courtesy of the author
In loving living memory of my beloved Ma/Mommy. And in loving hope for India. My motherlands.
When I was invited to write a short text reflecting upon India’s 75th anniversary of Independence for PEN America’s India at 75 project, I immediately thought: What a gift to have right here, in our three-generation home, precious people who were actually there, lived that moment.
The last Friday of this July, my Bombay-born mother – short of breath and long of memory, a moonlight-pixie-haired time-traveling ocean-crossing fairy, her petite frame reclining against pillows from a Western Massachusetts mall, upon a bed ordered online called the Shalini, by a window silled with Ganeshas and Saraswatis packed long ago so lovingly by her brother in Pune, suitcases exhaling sandalwood long after their Stateside arrival…in a house where we realized the years-long dream of reuniting three generations under one roof, in so doing turning that house truly into home, the way life should be, in the great state of Maine – gifted to Boston-born me her story. Her memory of this day: countless miles from that time, and yet, in heart, only a moment away:
Sooji, Sakar, Badam, Ghee
75 years ago, my future mother was living in Kolhapur, India. Childhood sun still upon her cheek, taste of that time, her tongue, she speaks:
Of August 15.
Indian Independence. It seemed.
School commenced with prayer: Vande Materam. My little-girl-mother, in khadi sari skirt, blouse, envisioned this motherland a goddess. Bejewelled; abloom. Golden-sari-swathed. Wide wise eyes; sweeping smile assuring worlds of delight.
After: Ah! Teacher distributing laddoos from magic-hat barrel.
Sugar-lipped, salt-skinned, she imagined this boon in the hands of all! The Catholic schoolkids, too, tucking in. Polish children from the nearby refugee camp, with their fascinating faces and beautiful Marathi, in the semolina savouring a hint of the kasza manna from the homeland they’d been forced to flee.
This—no flag-hoist, headline, parade—my mother’s image of Independence:
Sooji. Sakar. Badam. Ghee.
A treasure in her, every, palm.
A taste of sweeter days to come.
In the months after, tragically, that scent, sense, gave way to another: Ash-acrid. Bitter-burn. Neighbours’ homes, set afire. Others, too, through Laxmipuri. Kolhapur.
One day, my future mother and best friend Mumtaz were Hide-and-Seeking when Mumtaz’s brother fetched her away, despite please-let-us-plays.
Increasingly: Hindu families forbidding their ‘issues’ to see Muslim children, too.
Two little girls no longer allowed to meet.
All hide. No seek.
Childhood games tainted. Sides violently delineated.
Why couldn’t we just…be? That laddoo-promise—an India mothering, nourishing, freedom, inclusivity—was given to Mumtaz and me.
Now, that childhood goddess: Hair matted. Sari shredded. Body plundered. Eyes red.
Gone the gold. Sparkle. Smile.
Scent of jasmine, jamrukh, tea? Blood-sweat-tear gas. Artillery.
And we must renew her, come through, allow all to breathe.
Safely. With dignity. Coexisting peacefully.
All rivers to the sea!
The innocence of children at play in the street: Seek.
A childhood memory: a metaphor for what still could be?
Please, dear India, this anniversary:
Reach into the barrel, bullet-free.
Sooji! Badam! Sakar! Ghee…
Ring in the sweet.
From that bed, in this room, in this house transformed, the way life should be, to home, I will think of so many more nice stories to tell you, she said, after sharing this historic, herstoric memory with me.
A week to that day, on August 5th, my most precious gift of a mother transitioned, from this home, this house, this room—this bodily world—my father lying by her side, upon that bed ordered online, as he has done for nearly 61 years, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She returned herself to her three brothers for Rakshabandan, freed herself of her paining body for Independence. Her name, Shashikala, means phases of the moon, and a sturgeon supermoon soon after arrived.
My mother is my motherland. Our whole family’s. Heart of our hearts, love of our lives. Home embodied. And still home, sweet home, disembodied. No place like it.
I like to think in those last earthly days, her mind was filled with the joyful stories of her Kolhapur, of all of her, our, days, hours. I will be listening for them—hearing her, feeling her, missing her, seeking her, loving her, grateful for her, my life’s heroine—forever.
And hoping, praying, for India to create more joyful stories—to usher, rush in poet Rabindranath Tagore’s space and place where the mind is without fear—and forge peaceful future memories, for its people, all of us, too.
Love you so much, Ma/Mommy. From Mother India to Maine to the moons. This—every—one’s for you.
“Sooji, Sakar, Badam, Ghee” was first published in India at 75, an anthology from PEN America, available at pen.org/india-at-75.
Tanuja Desai Hidier is an author/singer-songwriter. Her pioneering debut Born Confused, the first South Asian American YA novel, was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults. Sequel Bombay Blues received the South Asia Book Award. Tanuja has also made “booktrack” albums of original songs based on the novels. She recently wrote the foreword to Untold: Defining Moments of the Uprooted, a nonfiction anthology featuring more than 30 new Brown womxn writers. Hidier lives in Maine, where she serves on the board of directors of The Telling Room whose mission is to empower youth, including immigrants and refugees, through writing and sharing their voices with the world. Please visit ThisIsTanuja.com for more information.