I’ve lived years in a city I wasn’t sure to call home. We become our surroundings, we are reflections of the people we eat with and walk beside. Yesterday my friend was reading the email I had sent to Naomi regarding an interview on receiving an award. I was wishing that she and I could’ve met in person. She stays in San Antonio and the interview is a long email dialogue. I wanted it to be intimate. I asked her if she prefers chai or coffee, how much milk, sugar or jaggery. And on reading that, my friend asked me what jaggery meant.
Is it possible for our hearts to burst into confetti? It felt exactly that. I told him that jaggery is what brown sugar probably is to Americans, but also that it was much more than that. My feeling of being surprised and pleased took over who I was in that moment. Words have a way of taking a backseat. Back home, jaggery is found in households that have an extended relation with chai. They’re people who spend more time preparing chai than consuming it. The sun lingers longer by the kitchen windows of these houses. When Naomi replied to my email, she said, “I forget what ‘jaggery’ means but love that word.” I wrote back, “Jaggery is a substitute for sugar. It’s sweet but it’s different, thick and solid in texture. It’s nothing like sugar, a bit like silk though. It’s called gudd in Hindi. So much is lost in translation.” I invited her for a cup of chai when she visits New York.
Jaggery is a grandma’s favorite. There’ll always be a gudd ka fulka, a roti made of melted jaggery, for cold and cough and fever days. Is this the home I packed in my bag, while moving to New York?
I come from Bombay and Bombay belongs to so many outsiders that I often feel I come from nowhere. At 16, 18, 21 and 25, the question of belongingness waited by my bedside. There were no answers, but the question wasn’t biting, just persistent. At times, I think that I could belong to books but I haven’t read so many. While attending a poetry event at school, I got into an unfolding conversation with James about grief. I asked him how he navigated through the landscape of grief and how much its shape changes the more he revisits it. He told me that grief is the weight we’ll always have to carry once we’re acquainted with it; it’s like a heavy jacket that we can’t take off but we get used to carrying. That’s what I thought about Bombay until I thought of jaggery.
Last October, facing a New York winter for the first time, I took to illness. I was unmoving in bed, alone in a flat with 102 degree fever. It felt like someone had dimmed the lights of my body and I had shrunk myself within layers of blankets and a Solapuri chaddar, a thick, warm bed sheet that reminded me of home. When we lose ourselves to fever, nothing matters—the taste of food or the feeling of drinking water. As I grew smaller, the quietness grew outward from my dim body to a dim room and an even dimmer apartment, until the sun came out. Jane, my house plant, was growing every day. I found new leaves and rich green color sprawling from her leaves, and the sun in the belly of her pot. My mother insisted I make gudd ka fluka. And I did. Like in Bombay homes, the sun waited for me longer by the kitchen window. Jane, the sun, and me—it felt like a Sunday, despite my losing track of day or date.
It’s tough to make chai in New York because the milk doesn’t welcome the chaipatti the way it does in Bombay. Malai, a thin layer of cream formed from boiling milk, is the signifier of a kadak chai. And there’s no malai in cups of chai I’ve made in this Manhattan apartment. I’ve taken to consuming copious amounts of coffee, and my fingers like the light weight of a cigarette. Maybe it takes illness to remember good days at home. It takes dim lights to trace where you’re from and find the sun helplessly stretching out to us. We become our surroundings in many ways; I drink cortado often, a glass of wine even, only to clink glasses in cheer or agreement or friendship, less because I want to drink it. We are the reflections of the people we eat with, and sit beside—I swear way more in conversation than I could have ever imagined. A friend told me that texting is like having a phone call with more pauses. And I’ve been wishing to text myself and talk about the plastic container with the white cap in the front shelf of the kitchen cabinet, full of jaggery from last year.
Aekta Khubchandani is a writer and poet from Bombay. She is the founder of Poetry Plant Project, where she conducts month-long poetry workshops. She is matriculating her dual MFA in Poetry & Nonfiction from The New School in New York, where she is the Readings and Community Development Assistant. Her fiction “Love in Bengali Dialect,” is nominated for Best American Short Fiction anthology. Her personal essay, “Holes in the Body,” published by Entropy, is featured on LitHub’s Best of Weekly Literary and her poem, “Sun spotting” is nominated for Best of Net 2021 by Nurture Literary. Her film, “New Normal” whose script she has written, won the Best Microfilm award at Indie Short Fest by Los Angeles International Film Festival. She has published works in Passages North, Speculative Nonfiction, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She’s working on two hybrid books that smudge prose and poetry.