Sushrut Jangi sketches his parents. Jangi is an MD, who works at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, was born and raised in America, but says he has a 'fierce emotional and familial connection to Indian culture'. Illustration: Durga Dominic
My parents don't say 'I love you', before me. Not even as a joke. I doubt they even say it to each other in private.
In Marathi, there is no phrase for 'I love you'. We also have no common phrase for 'thank you' or 'you're welcome'.
These are sayings my parents had to learn in this country. At home, we don't excuse ourselves from the dinner table.
When I was growing up we did have some rules:
- Make your bed before coming downstairs to have breakfast.
- Before you eat, you wash your hands and think of god.
- Don't talk back to anyone.
- Don't go to bed upset.
- Keep your affairs in order.
- Be thankful for what you have.
- Take care of the people in your life.
- Remember happiness.
Love can, however, be expressed, outside of 'I love you', circuitously.
"I wanted to read something," my father says, pulling a folded piece of paper out of his pocket.
He stands up from the dinner table. We haven't begun eating yet, but are in the prelude to dinner, when the pressure cooker puffs and whistles on the stove, mustard seeds pop in the oil, and my mother snaps cold pieces of okra into smaller bits on the cutting board.
It's the night before their thirtieth anniversary; Mohini and I are home for the weekend. Outside, it has been snowing all day and there are the rough sounds of salt trucks and plows dragging their shovels along the asphalt. Our dining room glows orange (the lamp, the warm curtains, the incense in front of the Ganapati).
My mother glances at my father then returns to the okra.
"I've written a poem for Aai," he says, unfolding the paper now, which he had folded several times over, as though wrapped.
I grin at Mohini; this is a surprise. I have little doubt in my father's literary talent. He is artistically gifted and patient and spends lots of time in the basement on different projects (recently he has fashioned my mother a sitar case out of cherry wood).
In the spring, he transforms the cold and hard ground into beds of soft grass, crocuses, strawberries, and later, in the summer, hydrangea and flowering dogwoods.
Whatever magic is needed to coax things out of the cold ground or to shape a piece of wood grants a person the ability to arrange words in a meaningful way.
He begins to read it without any other kind of introduction. He has written it in Marathi, a poetic kind of Marathi, where I can't follow the meaning. It's the kind of language we might hear in plays, or if a great person were to give a speech.
While he reads, my mother keeps chopping the okra, the blade coming down on the wood. With her other hand, she sweeps the smaller bits into a colander. When the oil is hot enough and the mustard seeds have done their popping, she'll pour the okra into the pan. The chapatis have already been rolled out; soon they will rise like clouds on the open flame.
"Aai!" I say to my mother. "Baba is reading a poem to you, can you stop chopping the okra for a minute?"
My mother glances at me and smiles, setting the knife down. She nods her head. "I'm listening," she says.
Mohini gives me a look of approval.
My father doesn't seem to notice the interruption. He goes on reading.
Now my mother does something -- at the end of his every line, she says "hahn," which means "okay." As he goes on, the volume of her "hahns" increase, suggesting that she appreciates his language.
The audience, in any Indian art, is a vocal participant. During classical concerts, they will not hesitate to shout out at the artists to raise the volume of the microphones. At moments of intensity, or musical climax, or even at the appearance of a single, hovering note, the audience will sigh collectively, in rapture.
"Hahn!" my mother exclaims, at a particularly pleasing metaphor. Despite her acknowledgements, she keeps her eyes on the neat piles of okra. My father, too, fastens his eyes to the bit of paper he holds in his hands.
When he's finished, my mother reaches over and pats my father's back. "It was good," she says.
My father takes his chair at the table, near me. We've sat in these same places for our whole life.
Then she gets up and brings the okra to the stove. From where I'm sitting, I can hear the vegetables cooking in the oil.
"Did you wash your hands?" my mother calls from the kitchen. My sister and I nod. "If you haven't," she says, her eyes on the billowing chapatis, "can you wash them before we eat?"