I spent nearly half my life in India, in Bombay – and lived in the city while it was still Bombay, until 1995. Ours was a middle class mostly Hindu household, in a cosmopolitan city. After my grandparents moved to rural India: my grandmother, my father and his siblings suffered social discrimination more often than they cared to remember. She did not talk about it, merely endured. I did not know her well in her lifetime, and religious observances in our home were always a ‘matter of fact’ fact, they followed whatever my grandfather had dictated.
After the riots of 1992-93, my beloved city fractured away into invisible enclaves of religious groups – Hindu’s, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and other communities. When the riots happened, neither of my paternal grandparents were alive to tell us how they felt – to see the city segregate into factions of us and them. It was only after the riots, that I truly began to ‘see’ religion in our city and what others feared. People reminded us often, that we were always on the other side of the proverbial religious fence.
When I started writing my latest hybrid book of historical fiction & cookbook based on family traditions, as a cookbook author, the most contested portion has been untangling the overlap and mingling of Hindu, Brahmin, and Jewish food related traditions and practices in my family’s kitchen. Sorting the ties and allegiances have been difficult, to say the least. For instance, while a Hindu household does not necessarily worry about meat but will likely observe meat-free days based on the astronomical signs, a strictly Brahmin household will abolish meat altogether, and a strictly Jewish household will be concerned about the Kosher aspect of any meal. And as the sequel to my first book is nearing its publication date, we have still not sorted it out.
All my life I have danced between all of these identities without explicitly recognizing or celebrating any of them. My father was not raised Jewish, so there was no reason for us to be. But on some days, I wondered what would have changed if my father was raised s a ‘proper’ Jewish. Would he care or hug us differently? Would he have loved differently, or thought differently? If I was destined to be his child, how would I be different as a human being? Would I call a different place my home? In truth, none of it would change.
I had long left Bombay to come to the US when my hometown suffered again, with the 2008 terror attacks, this time an attack on the new identity of the city – on Mumbai. After experiencing the hatred towards all people of color in post-9/11 America, I wondered how my own city would react, retaliate and most importantly, heal.
During the 2008 attacks, terrorists attacked many places, including the Chabad House, or Nariman House, where the rabbi and his wife lost their lives. Much like the reverse migration of the Indian Jewish community with the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, and later in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I learned that there was talk among local Jewish people about their Jewish Indian identity. Where did they belong? Should they continue to live in India or move to Israel? Where was their ‘home’? The Chabad House opened as a museum and memorial six years later, and as an effort to solidify the place of the Indian Jewish identity in the country. The community voiced their shared sentiment: “I am always going to be an Indian. I am always going to be a Jew. I am always going to live here, in some form.”
We only belong to those places where we can truly make a home. Immigrants feel that each time they go back to a place they were born in, when they vist with family or find shared experiences to enjoy.
In the present day, in troubled and challenging times, when we want to be communities of equals, mutual respect, and of symbiotic tolerance, it bothers me deeply when people, especially those I know, refute or speak despairingly of another’s religious beliefs or even lifestyles.
I have come to terms with a few different life truths, one of which is that I am addicted to and always looking to revisit anything from my family history, especially if it involves food.
But more importantly, I am discovering a personal desire to remain intrigued and willing to accepting other people, religions and lifestyles in ‘our’ fold, as acknowledgement of our shared condition: humanity. Because prejudice in any form harbors the seeds of discord, mistrust and hatred. We do not measure one another’s religious piety or allegiances’. Our family has grown to become familiar with the shared and common leanings, teachings, and influences of all these religions. There is an unspoken acceptance towards the beliefs, and an understanding that all religions teach the same things: extending love and kindness to all of life’s creations, taking responsibility for ones’ actions, not wishing ill on others, and a belief that there is a power greater than ourselves that can guide our spiritual growth, whatever that power may be.
While I taught religious studies as part of my teaching assistantship in Graduate School, I learned some valuable lessons, about humankind as a whole:
- The forms of who we bow, pray to or revere to may differ but the intent of prayer remains the same,
- The spiritual books we hold dear may vary but the lessons those pages teach are the same,
- Our prayer beads and chants may look or sound different but we all ask for the same things – love, acceptance, and the joys of shared happiness.
- And, most importantly, we all share the same human emotions.
In the spirit of our shared experiences, shared desire to work towards the greater good, allow me to share a dish with you, that may be one that likely suit many a communal holiday gathering this season. It is ideal for the winter months and may be enjoyed with your favorite beverage. It holds no religious affiliation of its own, but in its simplicity, and flavorful uniqueness can bring more people to the table.
Wishing you a happy, joyous and peaceful season ahead, whatever your celebrations may be.
Minty Pink Lentils and Split Chick Peas Fritters
Prep Time: 4+ hours
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Diet: Vegetarian, vegan adaptable
Makes: 20-24, 2” rounds
½ cup skinless pink lentils, soak for 4+ hours in warm water
½ cup skinless chickpeas, soak for 4+ hours in warm water
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ red onion, very finely chopped, about ½ cup, optional
1 large clove of garlic, peeled & grated, optional
½” piece of fresh ginger, peeled & grated
¼ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper powder (or to taste)
¼ tsp garam masala powder, optional
1 small potato, boiled and mashed
1 tsp lemon juice
5-7 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
Salt, to taste
Oil, for shallow frying
1 cup unflavored Greek Yogurt
2-3 tbsp prepare tamarind and date chutney (store bought, use your favorite brand)
Rinse the pre-soaked lentils and chickpeas until the water runs clear. Grind to a smooth paste. Set aside in a medium-sized bowl.
Mix in the yogurt with the tamarind and date chutney and set aside until ready to use.
Mix in the remaining ingredients, except the oil for shallow frying and combine well until all the spices are evenly distributed.
Warm up a large shallow saucepan with 4 tablespoons of oil. Using a cookie scoop, drop a single dollop of the batter into the hot oil and slowly spread it out into a large diskette using the back of the scoop. To ensure even cooking, each diskette should be about ½” thick. Lay out as many batter diskettes as one can fit into the pan without overcrowding it. Using a spatula carefully flip each diskette when the underside is golden brown. Repeat until both sides are evenly cooked. Drain on a paper towel and serve while warm with a side of the spicy tamarind yogurt chutney. Use coconut green chutney if adapting to a vegan table.
Nandita’s most recent book, and its sequel, is titled: Not For You: Family Narratives of Denial & Comfort Foods (Book One, 2017), (Book Two, 2018), Turmeric Press, a multigenerational historical fiction about women overcoming prejudice and discrimination. Print books may be directly ordered via the authors’ website. Digital versions are available on Amazon, GooglePlay and iBooks. To speak with the author to schedule an interview or arrange for a book review, please contact her at: