This is the second in a three-part series on Migration. In 2017, we collaborated with Manisha Anil Rita, a former student at the Art Institute of Chicago, to contribute to the Migration issue of an independent publication called Carry On. Our three part contribution included – a photo essay of objects we brought along as migrants, a short story about loneliness in a new land and a personal essay reminiscing trips to a local Shani bazaar.
In this story an afternoon of grocery shopping for a young homemaker, newly arrived in the US, is both a window into her loneliness and memories that sustain her. As you read we’d like to emphasize that while all migration is difficult, there is a crisis underway in India. Stick around till the end for resources where you can contribute and help.
On Buying Groceries – A Short Story
by Kanika Samra
Tall oaks, crooked pines and tulips swayed in the furious, moisture laden June wind. Leela had tried hard to recognize these trees and memorize their names. Looking out the living room window all she could recall were the lovely gulmohar trees that were abloom in her home, the intoxicating scent of jasmine flowers and the mouth-watering taste of the season’s first mangoes. She missed the beauty and the bounty of her home with all her heart. The monsoons were bathing the vast Indian plains, nurturing their parched earth, cooling off hot bodies while she sat by her window in New Jersey.
She could see clouds gathering in the distance. The apartment they lived in, she and her husband, was high enough to give her a panoramic view of the area. The river flowed quietly in the distance, while cars whizzed past her on the street below, airplanes crisscrossed in the sky leaving long white lines in their wake and the lights went on and off in the apartment building across theirs.
“Hi! Wassup?” a new message buzzed on her phone. Her husband made sure to check in on her a couple of times a day.
“Nothing much. How’s work?” she wrote back.
“Fine. Any plans for the day?” was his next question.
“Might go out for groceries” she replied.
Groceries were exhausting.
She always knew exactly what she needed so that wasn’t the problem but she found it so overwhelming. It was never overwhelming in the crowded markets back home. On the contrary, it was rejuvenating. Fresh vegetables, sprinkled with cold water gave out an aroma that excited the palate. She loved the touch of taut tomatoes, the sight of vibrant greens, the smell of coriander and mint and of course the mouthwatering aroma of mangoes. Here, she found this task tiring. The variety of food available left her awestruck the first time she went to the supermarket but now it tired her.
She arrived at the grocery store and sleep walked through her routine. The cashier asked her how she was doing, and Leela replied she was well and she in turn asked him the same question only to get the same reply.
Once she was back at the apartment building, up the elevator and into her apartment she walked in and, unloaded her purchase; she did all of this without meeting a soul. Leela had never liked the idea of zombies but now if she were ever to become one, this would be the perfect place for her to stay, she thought to herself.
Her phone buzzed, “Wassup?”
It was him again.
“Just got back from the grocery store”, she wrote.
“Oh ok, cool.”
“Wassup with you?” she asked.
“Just admitted a patient. Going to attend cardiology conference now,” he replied.
“Uhmmm, cool,” wrote Leela.
“What are you cooking for tonight?”
“I don’t know, what would you like to eat?” she asked.
Well that doesn’t help, she thought.
Cooking was one way of spending her time constructively. She always enjoyed playing around with ingredients, learning from her Daadi and her mother. Their inventiveness was never ending. Every summer when she returned home from college, she would be served new versions of traditional recipes. The ladies would always find ways of adding something extra or they would come up with new recipes altogether with scrumptious results. As Leela’s mother’s responsibilities at work increased her involvement in the kitchen began to reduce. As a result her grandmother was always at hand to tell the cook what to prepare and how. When she was home, Leela would be her Daadi’s shadow, looking over her short frame to see how she sliced onions differently depending on the recipes or how she rolled balls of dough to make rotis. In the pantry there were always jars full of pickles, savoury and sweet, prepared by Daadi. ‘Never let anything go waste’, was her motto. If there was a way of pickling and preserving a seasonal fruit or vegetable, Daadi had tried it.
At eighty, there were few things that excited Daadi. Cooking was one of those few things. She never turned down an invitation to go grocery shopping with Leela and her father. Daadi would put on her walking shoes, pick up her little satchel and put on her glasses, set to go exploring. Her enthusiasm was infectious. At home, Leela too enjoyed doing groceries. Taking turns, Daadi and Leela, would pick up packets of spices and inhale their aromas. They would weigh them in their palms trying to make up their minds on what to buy. Leela’s father, during this time, would look on in exasperation at his mother and daughter. He didn’t know what the fuss was all about, why couldn’t these women just get what they needed and be done with it?
“Come on, let’s go!” he would goad them, to no avail.
“Just a minute, papa.”
“We have to get back soon. Come on mummy, please.” He would plead with Daadi while Leela sauntered to another aisle.
All those outings were fun.
Sitting in her living room, staring at the continuous flow of traffic on the street below, Leela was amused by the memory of her grocery shopping sprees with Daadi. She also recalled how she had felt she would never end up a housewife like her grandmother. Her education and qualifications were not for sitting at home and cooking, they were for better things, greater things. She had never thought so hard and long about cooking, she had never believed she would need to.
The clouds outside her window finally burst and it start to pour. A faint smell of wet earth was in the air. It was almost seven in the evening; her husband would be home soon. Leela needed a recipe and she knew whom to ask. She picked up the phone and dialed. She imagined being back at the grocery store amongst familiar fragrances with her Daadi.
Thank you for spending some time reading this short fiction.
We beseech you to consider contributing to civic society organizations that are active on the ground. News cycles change quickly and while migrants might not be in the headlines, their hunger, lack of access to sanitation and healthcare are still real problems.
How can you help?
If at all, it makes you curious and concerned about what migration and hardship could actually mean in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, please consider some of the resources mentioned below.
PARI or People’s Archive of Rural India
SATHI or Support for Advocacy and Training to Health Initiatives (Maharashtra)
Trust for Reaching the Unreached or TRU (Gujarat)
Jan Swasthya Sahyog (Chhattisgarh)
Sambhawna Trust Clinic (Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh)
Association for India’s Development or AID
Stay informed; share reliable news
To follow stories from the ground we would recommend following some of these sources; freelance photographers and independent news websites:
– Kanika & Sakshi
So beautifully penned down, its almost like i was experiencing a day in Leela’s life.
Thank you Diya! It’s an experience shared by a lot of migrants women, especially in their initial months.