Chicken curry and rice pulao made for friends in the author’s home.

The hands that haunt our kitchen

“But Sumi, you’re not a lesbian.”

My mom said it to me in her kitchen with a partially nervous, partially amused grin on her face. I felt my lips mirror the awkward parting of hers when I said something about liking both, frustrated but resolved to reduce my queerness to “both.”

Even when we’re apart, I find myself sharing my mother’s face when I am appeasing someone else. The moment that follows—where I become aware of my likeness to her—I can’t stand myself.

Four years later, she is serving me a heaping portion of her Indian version of paella. Hunched over her plate, eating it with her hands, she looks over at me and asks, “How did you know you were gay?”

The author as a child in her home kitchen in Durham, North Carolina. The oversized zucchini was grown by her mom who has tended a flower and vegetable garden for over 20 years. Fruits of her mother's resilience practice.

A few days prior, I had driven up from Atlanta to stay with my parents in Durham, North Carolina for the week. My dad had been admitted to the hospital due to heart pain resulting from a blocked artery.

“How did you know you were straight?” I sent back to her, cocking my head like a rooster.

I was surprised that she wanted to know but too embarrassed to answer her directly. I was well practiced in slipping out of uncomfortable conversations with family. However, years of hiding myself as a sexual being from her made this moment curious enough to stay. My world and her world always had a funny way of colliding in this kitchen.

“I guess because I’m attracted to the opposite sex,” she responded.

I thought of my dad, who lay outside of the realm of attraction, in a category with Shrek and other ogres. My eyebrows raised themselves. My mom was so often the self-elected authority on if I should be sexually active (the answer was no, I shouldn’t) that I rarely thought of her own sexual journey. Her arranged marriage to my dad seemed like the way you pick out a house. It had a seemingly sturdy foundation. It looked how you might want something to look like from the outside. But it was a wooden thing, not a sweet, juicy love thing.

~

The day before I had spent the night at Duke Hospital with my dad. My mom came to the hospital after work to see about him. She sat beside him on the hospital bed. He was sitting up and looked at the ground with a jackal smile, preparing to start something.

Spices for chicken pulao.

“You don’t believe me Sumi, but me and your mom have a beautiful love.” He moved to put his arm around my mom’s shoulder but his elbow landed uncomfortably around her neck as he pulled her close. My mom flashed an (actually) beautiful smile while I grimaced. “No wonder this fool has heart problems,” I thought while giving him the side-eye from hell. Not because I am against love stories, or even my parents having one. But because I know the whole truth all too well.

~

If I wanted to understand my mom’s desires, I had to consider the unspoken parts of her. I needed more than her words about loving my dad. Whenever she spoke of sex, her voice pulled me by the arm, bringing me behind some bushes to quietly tell me the bad news. I needed something that let her body answer my questions about her pleasure and despair. So I asked her to teach me how to make goat curry.

Watching her fingers tear the clear, taut skin from the pieces of goat meat and coat them with yogurt and spices, I received my erotic education. My mom’s hands were impressive to me for the knowledge they held. She could swiftly peel potatoes using an old-ass steel peeler that always hurt my finger when I tried to do it. Her sand-colored palms were rough with vertical grooves from the ritual of washing dishes with Dawn soap. In the kitchen, my mom’s hands moved with a self-assuredness that I wished to see more of in her. But what I did see was proof enough that there existed a mountain of courage and mastery within her, which made that same power possible in me.

My mom’s home cooking could not hide the limitations put on her life by marriage and motherhood. The very thing that animates the taste of a dish, or a person, was restricted in the food she cooked. This same goat curry that she would prepare for us had a watery jol (gravy), was under-salted, and at times the meat was still tough and chewy. The dark richness of the food was buried sea levels below what we were actually eating.

Spices and herbs for aloo (potato) filling and chutney.

Like in her own cooking, my mom restricted the potency of life. Limitations on herself, and by extension me, made her feel safe. Noticing this made me wonder what scares my mom about her own joy. When I was a kid, whenever she disagreed with me spending time with friends or being engaged with life outside of our home, she would say, “That’s enough fun for today,” and keep me from leaving. The amount of joy I could have was cut off, and she gave me the feeling that experiencing any more would be risky. As an adult, I feel her anxiety with an intimate precision, even when she’s not physically there. I catch myself nervous that something tragic will happen when I feel happy.

My mom would never blame my dad, my brother, or me for her wounds. (We are quick to blame her for ours.) To understand her whole hurts and desires, my mom’s cooking, kitchen space, and stories are the spiritual materials I have to work with. These materials use feeling and imagination to mend the physical gaps between us. I grew up hearing the story of my annaprashan (literally meaning “grain initiation”), a Hindu rice ceremony for a baby where the child touches one of five objects which symbolizes their life path. I touched soil. By writing this, I wonder if I am tending to the earth that holds our lineage. And breathing more life into it.

~

The kitchen in my family’s Durham home is haunted by the years of domestic violence that took place in it. My mom told me that when she immigrated to Durham from Calcutta in the early ’80s after marrying my dad who was settled here, much of her thick, black curly hair fell out. He didn’t pull it out with both hands, but with his cruel mouth. My dad would flash at all of us, but his insults at my mom were so daily and automatic, that over 30 years of marriage I don’t know why his food was never poisoned.

The kitchen was where I would often witness his verbal and emotional abuse, which is why to this day the air in it still feels like something could pop off at any moment. My mom would be teaching me how to make homemade yogurt and my dad would tell her in Bengali to shut up because she doesn’t know anything. The look in his eyes was how the taste of raw karela (bittermelon) might look if it had a face. During one of my visits, when my mom was physically weak from chemotherapy, I watched as my dad ordered her to get his lunch ready. I was partially frozen—my automatic response in the face of my father’s abuse—but my eyes met his with seething anger. When I returned to Atlanta, I caught a fever with no other symptoms. It stayed with me for three days.

The author's home altar with a custom collage piece, "The Fire Inside" by Sean Saifa Wall.

My dad blames my mom for the failure of his first Bengali sweets business and its subsequent debt. She accepts the blame. He erupts with rage when she can’t find something as simple as car keys and berates her for her lack of common sense. She cooks all his meals, takes care of the house, and works full-time as an accounting instructor. She is literally the force that keeps him alive in spite of his multiple health conditions.

In the same kitchen where my father has just had a violent episode, my mom explains to me that sometimes she “doesn’t do things properly” and that my dad has a lot of wisdom that she’s learned from. She says he has a “speaking problem.” Her response makes me need god’s love in my life to keep from falling apart.

One summer my mom went to spend a month in India with her sister in the thick of her depression. While sharing with me her travel plans, my dad told me over the phone—without being prompted—“It’s not because of me.” (Foolishness always tells on itself.)

When I suggested to my dad that his heart issues were connected to his abusive behavior towards mom, he informed me that how he acts is cultural and difficult to change. There is tension for me in revealing these stories because my family of origin discourages sharing our private terrors outside of the home. The thought is that we should instead deal with them internally. Unfortunately, our practiced way of dealing with abuse is mainly through denial.

I recently read about the Buddhist teaching of interdependence, which understands that those people who we despise are often our greatest teachers because, “They show us aspects of ourselves that we find unpalatable and give us a chance to heal.” To be radically honest with myself, what erupts in me in response to my dad’s violence is the same venom that is deeply buried within me. It’s the same fiber that makes me resent myself for acting like my mother. I am not immune from internalizing the brutal misogyny of brown womxn and children that saturated our home. But I am committed to this cycle of abuse ending with me so the next generation in our lineage can inherit both my mother’s resiliency and my wild howl for something better. I write it down because I know the cost of not telling this story.

~

I believe we inherit the ways in which our hands move. When I am in the kitchen, pinching spices into hot oil and knowing when to stir, my hands follow a code that my mind alone can’t comprehend. Cooking is a daily practice that allows me to tap into this power that Audre Lorde describes as “ris[ing] from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.”

What I’ve inherited from my mother, her hands, and her parents’ hands, I meet in myself when I am in the kitchen. I am an embodiment of the wisdom in my family and feel responsible for bringing it into the future I want to build. In Atlanta, I teach food healing classes where participants cook South Asian recipes that I’ve remastered. I invite them to be curious about who moves their hands and what presence is with them in the kitchen. I believe cultural alchemy occurs in these classes where I bring new meaning and memory to the kitchen work of Bengali womxn who came before me. Sourcing from my mother’s resilience, I trust that intuitive knowledge and joy which oppression attempts to extinguish.

When I make the goat curry I learned from my mother in my Southern, queer of color community, my mom’s world (and therefore a world I’m part of too) touches the next chapter in our family’s story. My mom’s longing for something more than a life of laboring under obligation and patriarchy is activated through me—my hands. Her ability to offer compassion in the face of despair moves through me and fortifies my freedom dreams for something more for us than pure survival. Because she haunts me, I know the thread that connects us is integral to the soul work I came here to do.

Goat curry made by participants in the author's 2016 cooking and healing course in her home kitchen. The recipe is a blend of her mother's and her friend, Noel Didla's.

 

  • About

    Sumi Dutta is a community educator and beginner herbalist from Durham, North Carolina. Her writing and classes invite folks to get curious about the stories and feelings our food holds.