Author’s moth­er 

All pho­tos cour­tesy of the author

Even before my eyes open, my mouth starts water­ing. The air is thick with the smell of roast­ing besan and ghee. Oh my, my moth­er is mak­ing besan laadus today. Is it my birth­day? I won­der, is it my parent’s anniver­sary? I roll over and sniff the air. 

But the smell is gone. Just like all the oth­er fragrances.

I pic­ture my moth­er as I’ve seen her in pho­tographs tak­en before I was born. My moth­er, young and beau­ti­ful. She has glow­ing skin, large eyes, well-defined eye­brows, and a big nose — a fea­ture which I have inher­it­ed. She has very long hair, braid­ed in a plait that reach­es below her knees. I nev­er saw her hair worn like this. And I imag­ine the pho­tographs I’ve seen of tables laid out for Shab­bat prayers and din­ner at her par­ents’ home. The pol­ished brass Star of David oil lamp, lace table­cloths, plat­ters of fruit, and small cups of raisin sharbath. 

So much of my child­hood mem­o­ries are fad­ing, but the tastes nev­er do. Nei­ther do the smells, the smiles or the sor­rows. My body is the vault that holds these his­to­ries, these pre­cious mem­o­ries. They are mine and mine alone. No one else in our fam­i­ly will remem­ber the same things or remem­ber them the same way, even if they were present at the same time and place.

Here is what I remember. 

My mother’s hands are quick as she stirs the dried chan­na — split chick­peas, in the tava. From a pale yel­low, they turn to beige, to gold-brown. Then she grinds them by hand till they turn into a medi­um-fine pow­der. A few crunchy pieces remain. She adds this ground besan to a large flat-bot­tomed karahi where the ghee is already warmed and ready. Stir, stir, stir. She wipes her fore­head with the edge of her Cal­i­co sari pallav. My grand­moth­er has come to check if she is doing it right. My granny is a tough bossy woman who takes over my mother’s life after she mar­ries my father. 

It is time to shake in the sug­ar lit­tle by lit­tle. The grey­ish crys­tals are large and crunchy and not all of them melt com­plete­ly. Stir, stir, stir. Slow­ly, it is all com­ing togeth­er. The aro­ma is thick and sweet and spreads all over the house, waft­ing from our bal­cony to oth­ers, blown by the breeze down the street. The crows hang around our kitchen win­dow. Today they seem antsi­er than oth­er days. So am I, as I wait for the rit­u­als to be over. They will get their share too.

The author around age three, with her grand­moth­er Han­nah Joseph

Now my moth­er adds the fried raisins and cashews into the almost-pli­ant, almost-stick­ing- to-the-pan mix­ture. Ear­li­er that day, she has picked the raisins and cashews through for stones and they have been washed and air-dried. Still, it is not unusu­al for a grain of sand to hide in a crevice some­where and appear sud­den­ly under your molar when you are eat­ing. Ouch. The plea­sure and the pain. Insep­a­ra­ble, sometimes.

Granny is inspect­ing the mix­ture with her fin­gers. It’s time to taste. Yes! My turn now. Have you washed your hands? Yes, yes, yes. I drop a blob on my tongue. Mmmm, Granny says as she does the same. Now we all dig in with our hands. Not to eat, but to roll the sticky-crumbly mix­ture between our palms. We form lime-sized balls and lay them out on a tray to hard­en. Then we will arrange them in our big steel dub­bas. Some we will dis­trib­ute to our neigh­bors and friends. But the rest is ours. For now we keep rolling, rolling, rolling. How I long to lick my fin­gers as we do this, but they are watch­ing my every move, so I don’t. The reward is exquis­ite, so I will wait patient­ly. I can han­dle the wait. I am grown up now. Or so I think.

I will wait for the laadu to be ready, this gold globe that is made by their hands. I will bow my head and open my palms to receive it. A world held in their hands, then placed in mine. Heavy and earthy in my palms. Its deep and nut­ty fla­vor coats my tongue as I stand here at the edge of mem­o­ry. This is not a fig­ment of my imag­i­na­tion. It’s what makes it all real. That the joy exist­ed. That my par­ents, Ruby and Sun­ny, exist­ed, and my grand­ma Han­nah, exist­ed. That love wrapped around me like these aro­mas. That my mouth and tongue are blessed by them. Goud-goud bolah, they say in Maha­rash­tra on some Hin­du fes­ti­vals when they feed you spiky lit­tle beads of sug­ar and sesame seeds. Speak only sweet words. The wise hearts of the laadu mak­ers taught me — good thoughts, good words, good deeds. 

And what of con­tent­ment? They blessed me with that too. No mat­ter how lit­tle or how much I may have or how my sit­u­a­tion may change from year to year, I, laadu eater, bow humbly to the ones who made me who I am, who sac­ri­ficed and nev­er asked for thanks, and whom I nev­er cel­e­brat­ed enough. And I ask for their for­give­ness, for all of those things, but most of all for not writ­ing down their recipes, their mag­ic words.

Engage­ment pho­tos of the author’s moth­er and father

Zil­ka Joseph was born in Mum­bai, and lived in Kolkata. Her work is influ­enced by Indian/​Eastern and West­ern cul­tures, and her Bene Israel roots. She has been nom­i­nat­ed sev­er­al times for a Push­cart, and for a Best of the Net, has won many hon­ors, par­tic­i­pat­ed in lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals and read­ings, and has been fea­tured on NPR/​Michigan Radio, and sev­er­al inter­na­tion­al online inter­views and jour­nals. Her work has appeared in Poet­ry, Poet­ry Dai­ly, The Writ­ers’ Chron­i­cle, Fron­tier Poet­ry, Keny­on Review Online, Michi­gan Quar­ter­ly Review, Belt­way Poet­ry Review, Asia Lit­er­ary Review, Poet­ry at Sangam, The Punch Mag­a­zine, Review Amer­i­cana, Gas­tro­nom­i­ca, and in antholo­gies such as 101 Jew­ish Poems for the Third Mil­len­ni­um, The Kali Project, RESPECT: An Anthol­o­gy of Detroit Music Poet­ry, Mat­waala Anthol­o­gy of Poets from South Asia (which she co-edit­ed), Cheers To Mus­es: Con­tem­po­rary Works by Asian Amer­i­can Women, Uncom­mon Core: Con­tem­po­rary Poems for Liv­ing and Learn­ing, and India: A Light With­in (a col­lab­o­ra­tive project). She was award­ed a Zell Fel­low­ship (MFA pro­gram), the Michael R. Gut­ter­man award for poet­ry, and the Elsie Choy Lee Schol­ar­ship (Cen­ter for the Edu­ca­tion of Women) from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. Her pre­vi­ous Mayap­ple books are Lands I Live in (2007) and In Our Beau­ti­ful Bones (2021). Zil­ka teach­es cre­ative writ­ing work­shops in Ann Arbor, Michi­gan, and is a free­lance edi­tor, a man­u­script coach, and a men­tor to her students.