Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my life’s cultural experience would provide background for me to write on one of my favorite topics – East Indian food and culture. According to Webster’s dictionary, culture is “the characteristic features of everyday existence – such as a way of life, shared by people in a place or time; the characteristic features of everyday existence.
I enjoy the looks of disbelief that I receive from friends and acquaintances when I share my experiences growing up in an East Indian village. In hindsight, I realize those experiences of living in a community with people who did not all look, believe, or act like me, helped forge me into a lover and accepter of people and created an avid passion for diversity. Perhaps, I would have been a good civil engineer and used my background and education to construct virtual bridges that we can utilize to learn from each other’s experience and discover that we are more alike than we are willing to admit.
I had neighbors who celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that commemorates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. The streets around the Hindu Mandir in St. James would be crowded with people coming to partake and view the lighted diyas, visit the homes of friends and extended family, and enjoy foods and participate in the festivities. I still celebrate Diwali in the United Sates with friends and student events.
Another festival, Eid Al Fitr, a Muslim festival, occurs at the end of the holy month of Ramadan (fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran, and is dependent on the appearance of the moon). I was fascinated to see the transformation in the home decorations and the traditional dress, dances, songs, and festivals that are associated with these festivals.
Hosay was another Muslim, Indo-Caribbean festival that I attended and enjoyed. My earliest and best memories were the nights of ‘small hosay’, visiting the houses where the ‘tadjahs’ or small mausoleums, sun and moon, were being built to ‘lime’, (keep with company) with the men as they drummed and worked on their craft. On the street, two men would dance the sun and moon; others drummed and pushed the mini mausoleums through the streets of St. James before dumping them in the river or sea. I did not realize that it was a solemn festival until a now deceased relative told me that when she was young, elderly women followed the mausoleums along the route, crying.
I set aside time on the weekends to plan and prepare my meals for the coming week. I enjoy seasoning my meat and other ingredients in a mix of tempered-spices that will release their individual flavors while I contemplate the feasibility of eating East Indian food daily. In fact, during the festivals, I looked forward to eating sumptuous meals consisting of roti filled with bountiful helpings of tasty curried meats, pumpkin or chick peas, kuchela, potato pies, samosas with mango or tamarind chutneys, and saheena (a flavorful pie filled with spinach leaves). I washed these delicious meals down with a red Solo or mango lassi. Dessert could include korma, parsad and other sweets. Yes, growing up in an East Indian village was a multi-benefit that took my curiosity, love and appreciation for differences in people and transformed me into a diversity advocate.