Diwali came early this year for Mom. And not the way Diwali, our festival of lights, regularly comes early in my family when one of us neglects to turn off the lights and Mom yells, "Is it Diwali? Turn off the lights!" No, not like that.
Diwali came early this year because time becomes a meaningless loop when you're trapped at home with cancer. Trapped at home because you live in a country that has decided your life, and the lives of others who are sick and old, are expendable. So even though Dad is the one with the memory loss so bad he forgets whether he has eaten dinner, Mom is the one who messed up tracking Diwali. She thought it was a month earlier than it was.
I knew something was off when she insisted I go to Costco for the giant double bags of all-purpose flour and granulated sugar, gallon jugs of frying oil, as well as the multipack pounds of unsalted butter for ghee for the Diwali treats. It was around mid-September when she did this, and though Diwali was over a month away, I just figured she wanted a head start.
But then she asked me when my friend would come over to help make ghughra, the miniature empanada-looking ghee-fried Diwali sweets filled with semolina, coconut, raisins, almonds, sugar and cardamom. A few years back, we discovered that one of my best friend's super powers was filling ghugra, a skill she developed when she did her Mormon mission in Argentina and perfected empanadas. My mom, a woman not easily impressed with most people in a kitchen, watched on in admiration as my friend methodically stuffed and pinched the dough edges into a perfect kangri (the folded edge), ghugro after ghugro. Since then, the lead up to our family's Hindu festival is incomplete without our indispensable Mormon. I reassured Mom that yes, my friend would come. Her insistence felt premature, but again, I just thought it was more early planning.
Mom is almost 80 and has cancer, and the cost of living extracted by the chemo is pins-and-needles hands that are effectively numb. She is the opposite of lazy and still wills her hands to work, but it only gets harder with each chemo. Mom grew up with a strong work ethic in a home that was more like a free hostel where people would come and go according to their circumstances, and there was always a warm bed and a warm meal as long as you needed it. My grandmother's kitchen went through a 200-pound burlap sack of wheat flour every month due to the many mouths to feed in frequent rotation over the years. When my mom describes the stack of rotli her and her sisters had to roll every day, she'll hold her hand up two feet high. During one long stretch, my grandmother, whose own ten kids were not yet all grown, was raising eight motherless kids, some her blood, some not. Children who were raised by the village that was her home. At any given moment, there might be a friend whose daughter's pregnancy needed hiding, so another three adults would show up for a period of months until the child was born and put up for adoption. An open house, welcome to all, with nourishment for all, no matter my grandfather's meager earnings. That is the home my grandmother built, and my mother followed suit. My Mom's home has always been open to all with an abundance of food — she has been dubbed an Annapurna by my relatives — full of food, the Hindu Goddess of food and nourishment. Unwavering in the openness of her heart and home, even in the lean years of their early immigrant life, ready to feed all at a moment's notice.
Given who my Mom is and who she comes from, a little cancer or chemo was never going to get in the way of her annual Diwali food operation.
Given who my Mom is and who she comes from, a little cancer or chemo was never going to get in the way of her annual Diwali food operation, so over the past few years, we have tried to offload the burden of her making all the Diwali treats.
Her standards are too high to be satisfied with what we can get from the Indian store, and frankly, her standards are justified. The store-bought Diwali snacks don't even begin to approach the same universe of taste, richness, crunch, joy. They don't induce the same taste-of-home authenticity—you can't taste the love. The swirly chakris don't have the same snap, the round mathiya don't have the perfect balance of sweet and salt, the sweet diamonds of magash taste ghee-skimped. And don't even get me started on the chevdo.
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Unless you are small batch hand-frying round after round of a variety of overnight soaked dry pulses and flattened rice flakes, hand grating the potatoes to fry with the peanuts, cashews, and almonds for their nutty crunch, along with the occasional plump raisin — and unless you season each ingredient and put it all together to get something that is much more than the sum of its parts, don't bother calling it Diwali chevdo. It's not chevdo unless you are sweating over the iron kadhai, frying, ventilation fan on full blast to reduce the choking on all of the capsaicin in the air from the frying chilies, hours passing as you inadvertently salt ingredients with the sweat of your brow, losing track of yourself and time, questioning who you are and why you are here.
This part is key. You have to get to the level of achy arm soreness, fatigue tinged with despair, fry-induced carpal tunnel tingling, till you are hit with an existential wonder, questioning the point of it all, the point where you even reach a hostile edge towards Mom for having such high standards — because you never knew how much work it was until you did it yourself. Once you reach this point, the chevdo is almost done. You add the fried limdi (curry leaf), the green chili and coconut pieces, and then mom might remember anywhere between another one to eighteen more ingredients to add, and then you are done. Your sore biceps fire one more time to mix it all together, and the chevdo is complete. The kitchen is littered with an assortment of giant stainless steel containers that only belong to industrial kitchens and Indian households.
Finally, you have before you a perfect, authentic, no short-cuts chevdo, because you have an Indian Mom on steroids (literally because of the chemo), one who doesn't debase herself by using rice krispies or cornflakes or store-bought shoestring potatoes for her chevdo like all those other basic Indian Aunties, who skip out on the hours of work and sweat.
Once the chevdo cools, and you get that first fistful in your mouth, all your doubts dissolve, all your resistance melts away. Damn right it's worth it.
Then you pack up the containers for the various houses in the family and move on to making the next Diwali snack
This is the lead up to Diwali. There is no other.
And so this Diwali, this year's celebration of good over evil, this year's festival of lights, while I aspire to make ghugro and chedvdo like my Mom, what I will really be seeking, in those despair filled moments frying over the kadhai, is to try and emulate a life like hers, a home like hers.
So in September, Mom forgot it wasn't Diwali month, and started making some of the snacks on her own. All of a sudden, there were mathiya and ghugra and puri and I was confused, saying, Mom, wait, we will come over and help. My sister in-law thought Mom was just doing a dry run before the big event. She wasn't. She got confused.
And here we are a month later, getting ready this week for Diwali in earnest. And like the last few years, the post-cancer diagnosis years, I will wonder if this is the last Diwali I get to have with my mom. And I will take notes because I don't want to forget that she adds the khaskhas (white poppy seeds) to the ghugro mix, or the tiny nut, charoli, to the magash. But I'll also be watching the way she flicks her wrist when she uses the jharo to fry, handily dripping excess oil off batch after batch, or the way she'll sniff the air for a certain nuttiness to make sure the chickpea flour has cooked in the ghee long enough while making the magash. And I will be paying attention like an obsessive, trying to sear the details inside myself forever, hungrily, thirstily, consuming these moments, knowing I am not promised more.
And so this Diwali, this year's celebration of good over evil, this year's festival of lights, while I aspire to make ghugro and chedvdo like my Mom, what I will really be seeking, in those despair filled moments frying over the kadhai, is to try and emulate a life like hers, a home like hers. To hold on to and pay attention to every detail as long as I have her, so that I can be a woman like her, with a heart like hers.