“So far as we know, all the fundamental laws of physics, such as Newton’s equations, are reversible. Then where does irreversibility come from?…Why is it that the situations we find ourselves in every day are always out of equilibrium?”
— Richard Feynman, Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol 1, Ch 46
The blue-lined white wrapping paper bit my palms. Ice crystals outlined the okra bits inside the package. I had spent five out of the twenty precious dollars that had to last me till I got my teaching assistantship stipend on the package of okra, a pillow, a carton of eggs, and a loaf of bread. It was my first trip to the USA and my first supermarket shopping trip with my first roommate.
“Okra with onions, with cumin seeds’ seasoning is the easiest and fastest dish to cook,” Ma had tried to teach me during the sweaty summer months before I left home in mid-August for graduate school in the USA. It was the first time I was stepping out of India. In fact, it was the first time I was stepping out of my town and my parents’ home. I had never lived or traveled alone.
The year I turned 18, Ma had bargained with me, “Either you study and decide to have a career. Or I teach you cooking and arrange your marriage. But let me tell you that you are nothing if you don’t study. And do you really want to waste your life as a housewife?”
I chose to study. Yet the summer before I left home for graduate school, Ma’s voice had buzzed like a mosquito as she followed me while I packed, “Learn the recipes of at least a few dishes so that you can survive.” It was only when I complained about the heat and the fumes of the spices in the kitchen, and reminded her of the bargain of a few years ago, she had given up, “You will learn when you have to eat, I guess.”
Her words echoed in the empty flat on that first weekend in a country not my own, in a kitchen that felt as foreign as me. It was a long weekend and my roommate had gone to Chicago to be with her boyfriend. I decided to try and cook my first meal. The ‘easy recipe’ was a mess though: the okra pieces still semi-frozen, onion bits shriveled like cockroaches, the cumin burnt bitter.
I kept trying to call home all day, but had not been able to get through, not able to figure out the complex country code and phone number combinations that my roommate had told me for “cheap calls home”, and finally gave up, eating the half-cooked okra with bread slices that were damp with the salt of my tears.
The year I turned 18 was when Ma had cut short a trip to her parents’ home and came back, silent and with purple bruises on her arms. She had gone to help my maternal grandparents build an extension to their home, a part of which was supposed to be her inheritance. At some point, my maternal uncle insisted that she doesn’t deserve a share, and she was thrown out and told to go back ‘home,’ her husband’s house, in the middle of night.
In the subsequent years, my grandparents and uncle sent her a series of forms to sign and relinquish her rights to everything. Ma didn’t fight with them, but started shouting at me, “Stop wasting time!” This ‘wasting of time’ extended from my chatting with my friends, reading anything other than my textbooks to trying on makeup or talking to any ‘boys.’
The year I turned 18 was the year of the ‘Great Bargain.’
The year I turned 18, Ma’s secret to a good life became: “Get out of this country.”
And yet, a few years later, when I did get a chance at this longed-for good life: I realized the ‘dark’ seams within it: the colour of my skin meant this country, once the land of Ma’s dreams, will never be home for me. What had started as “Where are you from?” became “Go back home where you belong” from people who couldn’t look past my brown skin.
A few months after I came back to India, Ma suffered a sudden heart attack while in another city. By the time my father and I reached there after a frantic flight from Delhi, all I could do was watch flies dance around Ma’s swollen feet as the ice slab beneath her body melted into a stream of teardrops.
Jonaki Ray was educated in India (Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur) and the USA (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). A scientist by education and training, she is now a poet, writer, and editor in New Delhi, India. Her work has been published in POETRY, Poetry Wales, The Rumpus, Indian Literature (India’s National Academy of Letters), and elsewhere; and her debut poetry collection is forthcoming from Copper Coin Publishing. You can find more about her on Twitter (@Jona_writes) or at https://jonakiray.com/