My mother ate with her hands. She devoured Shorshe ilish: fish doused in mustard oil and turmeric, the mustard sharp in the nose, the taste bitter and salty, spicy from green chilies, the oil of the fish skin flavoring the curried mix, her fingers stained yellow from turmeric. She was always mixing the white ilish mach into its surrounding juices, smashing it into Basmati rice. Small balls of food, perfectly round. She’d place each one rabidly in her mouth.
White people didn’t eat like her. They ate with a fork and knife. Sometimes a spoon. It isn’t as if my mother never used these tools, she did. After all, she was a cosmopolitan subject, a transnational one, a Bangali from Calcutta, traveling around the world before it was easy, before airports became malls, before travelling became a sport for the privileged, before the western world went searching for itself. But wait, that was colonialism. Forgive me for that historical inaccuracy, sometimes I forget the things I’ve learned.
Simply put: my mother wasn’t primitive. She just reveled in the tactile delight of eating with your hands. It was a cultural choice. She chose her Bengali ethnicity over assimilation into any American norm. It was not the function of some primordial relationship to food. She savored the feeling of food in her hand, not a cold fork whose metal could clang against teeth so hard a searing pain would rise up to the root, sometimes the metal sour, the texture smooth but hard, not like the soft smoothness of fingers.
In Calcutta, I watched as my Dida and Mashi perfected the art of clean eating with hands. They would mix the rice and fish, the white rice preventing the hands from becoming too sloppy, soaking up juices and oils. And when they ate, no food clung to their faces, no mess on their hands—just a bit of spicy residue on their fingertips, easily cleaned off by a quick lick of the tongue.
I practiced this art. Perhaps I wasn’t perfect at it. Maybe I wasn’t the cleanest. I was an American and my time in India fragmented. I was only partially able to mimic the movements my family had mastered. I was hybrid. Everything about me was mixed up.
One day when I was twelve, I went over to a friend’s house for a sleepover. Jessica lived with her mother, her parents divorced. Her house small, a California bungalow in the city of Arcadia that looked as if you could pick it up and place it anywhere, a boxed home with a small fenced in yard.
Jessica’s mother made us dinner that night. Beans and a tiny bit of Uncle Ben’s Rice, a small pork chop alongside. Dry meat. The sight of rice made my hands leave the utensils beside the plate. My body’s memory of my mother’s movements made my hands leave my mind, deciding all on their own that they would mix and swirl the rice and beans together. But I didn’t know what do with the pork chop, it didn’t make room for the movements of mixing food with rice. It didn’t break off like a piece of tender Ilish. I picked it up with my hands and took a bite. The food was odorless, no fishy pungent, bitter mustard, or green chilies to clear the sinuses and heat the mouth. The meat was bland but I kept eating everything until it was all gone. I was proud of myself. I had eaten an entire meal that lacked flavor. I was so polite.
At night, Jessica and I danced around her room in our pajamas. We told dirty stories and secretly stayed up late. We had fun. It all seemed so normal. But the next day I learned that I wasn’t very normal.
Jessica’s mother called my mother a few hours after my return home. We had been sitting in the living room watching The Oprah Winfrey Show when the phone rang. My mother picked up.
“Hi Shukla, it’s Jessica’s mother. I just wanted to let you know that I don’t think I will be having your daughter over to my house again.” I heard the voice on the other line loud and clear.
“What did she do?” my mother asked. I heard the worry and anxiety that layered her vocal cords. My gaze lingered on the television while my ears lurched towards my mother and Jessica’s mom’s conversation.
“Well, I don’t know who taught her how to eat, but that girl is lacking manners. She is loud and she ate with her hands. Shukla, did you never teach your daughter any manners?”
My mother paused. She looked defeated and confused. I imagine she searched her brain for an answer. Had she properly trained me in the art of using a fork and knife? Was this a product of bad parenting?
“I am sorry that you didn’t like how Rani behaved. “
“Well, someone better teach that girl some manners. Hopefully that person will be you.” Jessica’s mother hung up. My mother slowly put the phone on the receiver and looked towards me. Her back was hunched over, a tiny curve of defeat defining it.
“What did you eat at Jessica’s house?” my mother asked.
“We had rice and beans and pork chops, why?”
My mother grabbed my wrist and walked me to the kitchen. She didn’t grab hard. Her movements weren’t scary. This wasn’t punishment or education through punishment. This was very much about making me learn what Jessica’s mom insisted I learn—manners. She led me to the drawer where we kept our utensils and she pulled out a fork and knife. She placed them in my hands.
“Go sit,” she stated, calmly. She had a ring of disappointment around her eyes
I sat down at our round kitchen table and looked out the window.
“Here,” she gently put the fork into my left hand. I awkwardly held it.
“But I am right handed, I know how to use a fork!” I protested.
“But you don’t know how to use a fork and knife together. I will show you.”
She placed the knife in my right hand.
She walked over to the fridge and looked around. Her face searched inside for something hearty enough for me to cut into. There were no steaks or pork chops, no bland chicken breasts devoid of the flavor from bones. She shut the fridge. Her face scanned the room. Looking from corner to corner, searching for an appropriate piece of food. Her eyes landed on our fruit bowl. A bunch of bananas still slightly green.
This will do, her face said as she walked over and grabbed one, talking the peel off as she sat beside me and placed it on a plate she had removed from our dish rack. It looked so funny that banana, all alone on a big round plate. Funny and colorless. Boring and funny.
She grabbed the utensils from my hands and placed them in her own. Fork in the left, knife in the right. It was peculiar. She stabbed the banana with the fork to hold it down and raised the knife. She lowered it and began to saw. She cut a piece off.
“You do it.”
It felt abnormal, the fork in my left hand. I hesitated.
“Do it!” She was starting to get angry.
I repeated her movements, using the fork and knife like she did, cutting piece after piece of banana until there was no more banana left to cut off.
“Do you know how to do it now?”
“Yes, Ma.” I responded, obediently.
“Okay, good. Now when you ever go over to anyone’s house you must eat like this. And remember to talk quietly.”
She left me in the kitchen to ponder the lesson she had taught me. I gazed at the banana carnage on the plate, the fork and knife still feeling awkward in my hands. I slowly placed them down on the table and opened my palms wide to give them a stretch. I felt a wave of relief.
Not too long after my night at Jessica’s house my mother sent me to live with my Dida in Calcutta for almost three and a half years. There, my fingers indulged themselves in the touch of food, mixing rice and daal together, dipping the tip of my finger into a small pile of mango atchar to incorporate its zing from chili into my mouth, making my senses delight from the mix of spice, tart, and the effortless texture of rice and fish mixed together that would lather the muscular frame of my tongue. My fingers learned to feel their way through pieces of FISH with bones, my hands became expert instruments for eating. I was almost able to emulate my Mashis and Dida and mother and their clean eating with hands. Watching my hands as they mixed, swirled, and created round balls of food, I felt proud. I felt a little less mixed up.
When I returned to the United States at 15, my experience with Jessica’s mother made me hyper aware of the spaces where my hands were allowed to be utensils and where they were not. But I circumvented the system. When I went to a restaurant and there were, “finger foods” like chicken wings, I’d order them, always with bones, devouring the flesh and sucking on the bones, licking each finger covered in juices, the spicier always the best, closer to the heat of Bengali cooking and green chilies.
But whenever I am invited over to someone’s home, I assess whether this particular dinner party will be one in which I must have “manners.” If it is, I concede to the uncomfortable act of holding a fork in my left hand and a knife in my right. I concede to the awkwardness of using cold utensils, the fear that the fork might clang against my teeth, that the sour metal might my interrupt the flavors in my mouth. When I think back to that day, I remember the disappointment in my mother’s eyes, the panic, the two of which combined into shame. I understand that it was more important that I be perceived as having manners than she. I was the one who would most likely live out my days in the United States while she would move back to India. But thinking back to that day, I now realize that what was of most importance is that she be perceived as a good maternal influence, one who shaped me into a well-mannered girl—the stakes are always higher for the mother, the work of their parenting on display like a piece of artwork on a gallery wall, there to critique or revere.
My mother taught me to love the delight of food on my fingers, of picking up small balls of rice and placing them rabidly in my mouth. My favorite dish, Muri Ghonto: fried fish heads broken up, potatoes and tomatoes, bright yellow from turmeric, the smell of ginger and garlic wafting into your mouth, traveling into your stomach. It makes my tummy ache with pleasure and longing to think about a dish I have to travel so far to get. The only way to eat it is with your hands, expert hands that travel through your plate to find the fatty flesh to suck off bones. Gnawing at cartilage and bone, the potatoes couched in the ridges, in the juices enveloping each piece. My mother taught me to love an essential part of the familial life of her ethnicity, and this I learned from her so very well.
Rani Neutill is a former academic whose writing has appeared in SALON, The New York Times Book Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is working on a transnational memoir about fractured identity and falling in and out of love with her mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother. She is a student in the Memoir Incubator at Grub St. in Boston.