A Mother and Son, Minding Peas and Cues

Monica Bhide has a very interesting essay with the same title in the Washington Post. For three weeks now, I have sat with the new post page trying to come up with something. Each time I have drawn a blank with the cursor blinking at me forlornly. I am struggling with spending time tending to this blog, spending time in the kitchen and just being with the kids.

This essay was a nice in the way it brought it all together.

Find the article here

Reprinting the whole essay here, in case the link becomes redundant.

As a very young child, my son Jai had an unaccountable aversion to learning any language other than English. Yet, I was determined to teach him Hindi, my mother tongue, to ensure he did not miss out on a culture and heritage for lack of simple knowledge of its language.

I would point to his clothes, toys and books and encourage him to respond with their Hindi names. Eventually, he spoke a few words — he could point to a chair and call it kursi and say the numbers from 1 to 10 in Hindi. But he did not know simple phrases such as “How are you?” or “My name is Jai.” He could not have a conversation in Hindi.

That all changed during a trip to India when Jai was 4. I was sitting with my mother on the floor, shelling peas. As we were laughing and talking, Jai wandered over, picked up a pea pod with great curiosity and asked what it was. It is mattar, my mother told him. Peas? he wondered. Inside this? He loved the fact that he could open the pod and find a treasure. He opened one, then another and another. He sat still, which in itself was an achievement. He began to listen to us, to ask questions.

Some mothers like to color with their young children, some read books, some watch television. I could never have imagined our time together would be used to shell peas.

Once we were back in the States, I searched supermarkets and farmers’ markets for peas in pods. I rinsed them, patted them dry and waited for 3 o’clock so I could pick up Jai from school and we could shell peas. When pea pods were hard to find, I cheated, more than once passing off edamame as peas. Rarely were we able to eat the peas for dinner; by the time Jai’s tiny fingers got them out of the pods, they were too squished or had gone straight into his mouth. I didn’t care as long as we sat and shelled and talked.

We sat on the floor and started by sorting the pea pods, his fingers working furiously to separate the little baby pods from the mother pods and the daddy pods. Some days we named the piles of pods for his school friends — Zack, Sam, Casey. Then we counted. Jai could count to 20 in Hindi by then, and finished counting in English. On a few occasions, we reached 30 together.

Then came Jai’s favorite part, the time for me to tell him stories — in Hindi. We always started with the story of the witch, the one who would come and make a home in your hair if you went out without drying it on a cold day. The story would somehow segue into what Buzz Lightyear or Spider-Man would do if he found this witch. (An interesting question, since we could not find a bit of hair on either of their heads.) Each story had a different ending, depending on which action figure was stationed next to Jai for the afternoon.

After the witch would come the story of an Indian princess who lived in a golden castle. I wanted it to end with her marrying a handsome prince. My son, however, would add his 4-year-old’s spin and American viewpoints. Sometimes the princess would be a doctor, usually a veterinarian, and would end up marrying Shrek. Other times, the gentle princess would be transformed into a superhero and I was pleasantly challenged to come up with the Hindi names for laser guns and robotic evildoers.

One day, Jai asked me, “Mom, apne kahania kaha see seekhi?”

Where did I learn the stories? Why, from Bahenjee, of course.

By now Jai knew that word meant “older sister,” and his curiosity was piqued since I had no older sister. She was not related to me, I explained. It was a term often used as a mark of respect for an older person. A distant relative by marriage, she lived in a quiet part of my dadi’s house in Delhi. Dadi, my father’s mother, lived in what most people refer to as an Indian bungalow that housed a joint family — 14 people on an average day, not including the various relatives who would show up out of the blue.

With her crooked teeth, thinning white hair, flowing white sari and shrill voice, Bahenjee lived on the fringes of Dadi’s household. She had her own small area — steel almirah or armoire, charpai or cot, and wildly painted and loud pictures of various gods on the mostly bare and peeling wall. On a shelf were statues of gods, incense sticks, fresh jasmine flowers, silver coins. Bahenjee generally rose at an ungodly hour, 4 a.m., and did the work of an alarm clock for the house, singing prayers tunelessly at the top of her voice.

“Ab who kaha hai?” asked Jai. Where is she now? I had no idea.

“Nanu se poochege?” He pointed to the phone for me to call his grandfather in India to ask him. I did, and my father told us that after my grandparents died, Bahenjee went to live with her son. She had since died.

Jai asked me more and more about her and her stories and the memories came flooding back.

On my summer vacations, when I was a child, I would look forward to going to Dadi’s house so I could be with Bahenjee. For she was one of the best storytellers in the world. You and I shell peas, I told Jai; Bahenjee and I would make sev, noodles, as she shared stories. We would sit together in the hot Delhi sun after her ritual of sweeping the concrete courtyard with a wooden broomstick, brushing away dust and dirt I couldn’t see, and laying out a bamboo mat, or chitai, for us to sit on. She would spread newspapers in front of the mat and peel a few Indian oranges, santras, for me to eat. Then she would bring out the chickpea dough.

Bahenjee would make small logs of the dough, and she taught me how to hold each one between my fingers as if I were counting the beads of a rosary. Away we would go, preparing small bits of sev as princesses crossed paths with evil witches. Even as she talked, Bahenjee outpaced me in making sev. She would go through containers of dough while I was still struggling with my first log. She never seemed to notice that I generally made a mess and seemed to be interested only in the stories. Occasionally, she would ask me to wet a muslin cloth to cover the dough as it started to dry up. We would sit in that glowing Delhi heat for hours and I would listen, mesmerized.

As I recalled Bahenjee’s stories for Jai, it occurred to me that the tales she had told me had been in Multani — I learned a dying language through her stories. All of the stories were set in my father’s birthplace, Multan, a part of India until the separation of India and Pakistan. Bahenjee spoke Hindi, the more colloquial language, as well, but seemed to prefer telling the stories in her own language, stopping to translate only if I looked totally lost. She would recount painfully how she was forced to leave her motherland. She would talk about my father’s childhood, about her own family, about the food and the festivities.

Her language connected me to a place I would never see and a culture I had never known. No one in my family ever returned to Multan. Bahenjee chronicled a history that was lost in a war over religion and hate. I learned prayers and nursery rhymes in Multani.

Bahenjee’s stories ended, inevitably, when the dough did. I have always wondered what she did in the winters.

Learning to appreciate another culture through its language, through the words of an old woman who has seen life and lived to tell about it, now feels like a blessing. When my parents told us their childhood stories, we rolled our eyes. It always seemed to be intended as a lecture, prefaced with, “When I was your age . . .” Bahenjee’s stories were different. They transported me, intrigued me.

Several years have gone by since Jai and I started counting peas. At the age of 8, he speaks Hindi, though not flawlessly. Often he mixes English and Hindi words to create his own language. He has even picked up a few stray words of Multani.

Now, the questions he asks in his Hindi-English mix are no longer simple. Kya sab Iraqi log bad hai? Are all Iraqi people bad?

Why are those soldiers carrying banndooks, guns?

Why do people die, will I die? Aap bhi? Will you?

Jai no longer struggles with the language; now it’s my turn. I struggle for the right words, the right answers, in any language.


26 thoughts on “A Mother and Son, Minding Peas and Cues

  1. Great story! Trisha understands Kannada but hesitates to speak! Tushar is not that interested in the language but loves Amarchitra mags and mythological stories!:)
    Btw, have you heard of Bollywood Hinglish? I have B4U from dish network , I become speechless how easily they weave English and Hindi one sentence. Sometimes it sounds so ridiculous, I end up getting entertained just to listen to that! Kids don’t understand at all, I have to tell them that they are indeed speaking in English!;D

  2. thats one of the most beautifully simple stories i have read in a while..its just what i needed this morning to know simple things still are what we work for..

    thanks a million for putting that up n sharing it..its made a random connect on this morning to a lot of things in my head


  3. Vee, lovely article,tks for sharing.Firstly it reminded me of my bapama who was a fab story teller..we cousins used to be lost in her stories..all mythological stories in purest of Konkani and she used to read all kannada story mags which her 2 DILs used to provide..secondly your love for peas has been reflected equally as your love for mother-tongue in this essay! True when we are away from our motherland, we struggle more to keep our rituals, traditions, language and culture in place wt occassional ommision 🙂 . Monica Bhide has written so well !!
    Thanks for posting yet again! Have a gr8 day!

  4. Wonderful writeup Vee! I came to tell you that I have posted something for dasara and will send it to you!:)) Your post came as a surprise!:))
    We had same difficulty in teaching my son tamil. He grew up watching cartoon network and discovery channel! read all english books. We were in delhi and hindi was only for scoring marks at school! Once when my parents were visiting I told him he cannot talk to grandma as he does’nt talk tamil! from that moment he started pestering us for translation for everyword to tamil! He learnt tamil in a weeks time!:))

  5. Awwww Veee… Your story reminded me of my dadi who used to talk in multani too and tell us little tales and how she escaped with her son (my dad) at the time of the partition…. wow…….

  6. Hi, beautiful piece! I just finished reading Khaled Hossieni’s “Kite Runner” and more recently “A thousand splendid suns”. He has used so much of Pashto and Kabuli words used in a similar way – and this piece of writing after that makes me want to read more…….

    I too struggled to teach my younger one, my son Tamil – however he has learnt it now after my daughter and I decided to speak to him only if he spoke in Tamil. But in his case – he knows the language but finds it easier to speak in English or Hindi (Mumbai ishtyle)!

  7. Vee,
    I rememebered Monica Bhide’s article when I read the following article in today’s Contra Costa Times and also mentioned about passing on Konkani culture to our children until they are in the high school. Once they are gone , gone, Only the memory remains in our mind.

    This real-life article appeared in Today’s Contra-Costa Times May 3, 2008
    Mother-Son bonding
    Opportunities exist – they’re just different


    By Laura Shumaker

    FOR THE FIRST time in two years, my 14-year-old Son John was getting a real haircut, a buzz cut, for the part of Daddy Warbucks in the school play. He is the Youngest of my three sons and like every boy his age, he has been wearing his sandy blond hair long, bushy, fashionably messy, and he loves it that way.
    I miss the short hair, I miss seeing his eyes, but most of all, I miss trips to the barber.
    When you are the mother of three boys, you don’t go out to lunch with them unless you find a place that their friends would never go, and you don’t go shopping, but you do go to the barber, and our mother/son haircut ritual has been a small but consistent bonding event. We started at the shop with the merry-go-round pony chairs, and then graduated to the real barber, Sixto, when my oldest son was about 10. Sixto’s is a guy’s paradise with private jokes and mind-teasing riddles, just sit there and smile, relishing the sight and sounds of boys being boys. Then, with short haircuts and clean slates, my sons and I talk over an ice cream cone before the ride home.
    But all at once, it seemed, John’s older brothers went off to college, long hair came back in style, and trips to Sixto ceased.
    The day of the prescribed haircut was not jolly like the old days when short hair was cool. John rode silently beside me, arms folded, looking frostily out the window. I was flooded with the memory of myself at 14 — white-blonde pigtails and eyelashes, a nose too big for my face, and braces too big for my mouth. I was fascinated with 14-year-old boys back then. They seemed mysterious and
    worldly, yet when I was near them, all I could do was giggle uncontrollably

    But the son sitting beside me, who fared better in the looks department than I
    had at his age, was not so mysterious. He was just a boy who missed his brothers now, more than ever, and was about to shed the hair that made him a part of his middle-school pack. His hair defined him — the guitar player, the funny and friendly guy, the skateboarder and the ladies man.

    When we arrived at the barber shop, John’s tortured expression gave way to a face-breaking smile as Sixto and his staff welcomed him with applause and slaps on the back.
    “Welcome back, buddy;” he said, whipping out a black plastic drape; “Looks like we’ve got to give that helmet of yours a little style!” John explained the reason for his visit while Sixto nodded sympathetically, and then suggested a plan of action.
    “We’ll do it in steps,” he said. “Let’s start with a mullet,” and large clumps of hair fell with applause and laughter from everyone in the shop, including John.
    “Do you have your cell phone, Mom?” John said, ‘We’ve got to take pictures of this!” The sandy tufts kept falling off, and after a while, when his hair was very short but not yet a buzz, John stopped laughing, and looked a little sick. Sixto drew back the razor.
    “You just ask the guy in charge of the play if this is short enough,” he said, “and
    if isn’t, you come back and I’ll take care of you.” He put gel on John’s bangs, making the most of this traumatic situation, and stood back.

    I couldn’t believe how different John looked. I hadn’t seen his eyebrows in such a long time. They had filled out considerably and were outright manly, He was manly. My baby was a man.
    “You know who you look like?” Sixto said, “That guy in the ‘Gladiator,’ Russell Crowe!” John beamed, and having gotten into the spirit of it all, he got up and took a bow. Then the two of us were off for the ice cream, laughing at the pictures of the haircut on my cell phone. Sitting across from him, it hit me: There wouldn’t be too many more haircuts before John would follow his brothers off to college.
    Where did the time go? Had it really been 15 years since I convinced my husband that we should have one more child?
    “We’re going for a girl!” I told my mother, jumping up and down. “I love my boys, but let’s face it: Daughters stay closer to their moms through life. We’re proof of that.”
    “I’d be so happy for you if you had a girl,” she said, ‘but three boys would be nice, too. I’ve always thought of you as a mother of boys.” At the time, I thought she was just bracing me for disappointment. She, I was convinced would be the first one to say “I knew it!” when the baby girl was born.
    But now, as I sit across from the third boy, who is busy texting his older brothers with pictures of the haircut. I think my mother meant what she said.
    And she was right.

    Laura Shumaker lives in Lafayette and is a contributor to “Something That Matters” (Harwood Press, 20(17) by the Wednesday Writers of Oakland, California (www.wednesdaywriters.com ) Proceeds benefit the Carol Ann Read Breast Health Center at the Alta Bates Summit hospital in Oakland.

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