Two years after breaking off contact with my family, I stood on the curb of a Chinatown street, weeping.
I had nearly passed the fruit stand but turned back, against the current of shoppers, toward the spiky, olive-green fruit resting on a crate outside. Closer, I could see that it was all wrong: spiny instead of pebbled, smaller, and more uniformly shaped than the asymmetrical swelling of a ripened jackfruit. I glimpsed the sign – “dorian, $5” – before tears blurred everything into bright smears of color.
For years, grief would overwhelm me in the midst of the ordinary: flipping channels on a hotel television, my mother’s perfume on a stranger. There is so much I know that I can never get back, but survival doesn’t come without loss.
When I cut myself out of my abusive family, I expected to miss them. I braced myself to long for their voices and practiced neutralizing my holiday guilt-trips. I wasn’t prepared, though, for the sudden absence of my own identity.
I didn’t know how to be Indian without my family. They looked like me. They spoke a language I could pick scattered words from with pride. And they were my connection to our food, smells, and tastes that are specifically Keralan. I realized that I would never be able to travel to Kerala the way I always had, with family to give me context and place in a home that had barely been mine.
I grasped tightly what little I had. I could count to ten in Malayalam, tapping my thumb to each fingertip like church aunties slipping rosary beads through their hands. When a new gap appears, I wonder at the widening chasm between where I am and where I once belonged.
One day, a coworker asked if I’d ever had jackfruit, excitedly describing this “vegan meat substitute.” I stared. I didn’t know how to begin, which tattered memory to offer – my father mixing syrupy canned chakka into appam on good mornings, the massive fruit nestled in my mother’s suitcase when she returned from her father’s funeral. My words dissolved at the back of my throat. I nodded, silent as a prayer.
My mother’s family lived on what we called a farm, though it looked nothing like the neatly fenced carpets of even green in American cartoons and books. Those farms were both quaint and vast, sprawling over hills, silhouettes of grazing cattle freckling the horizon. My grandparents’ farm lives in my memory as a scrap of jungle behind their one-story house. The chickens were wiry and the cow, with sharp bony peaks and a triangular head, hardly resembled the plump, trapezoidal black-and-whites in Kraft cheese commercials. Beyond the bare yard, lush, dense greenery obscured the reddish-brown earth.
Jackfruit always welcomed us. A cousin navigated the foliage, holding aloft a grey knife lashed to a wooden pole. In a few swift hacks, the heavy fruit crashed down. Sometimes the thick rind split on impact and the aroma, sweet and earthy, floated across the yard. We crouched, separating the golden pockets of sunbaked fruit with our fingers. Each one was silky, pliable like flower petals, somehow both tender and sturdy against my teeth. Every chewy bite grew sweeter on my tongue as I turned the smooth white pebble of the seed in my free hand – that was Kerala, to me. That was home.
Building my own home, I’ve unpacked the fragments of my old life to arrange alongside new finds. I teach myself to cook, with my own measurements and substitutions. I mix my father’s music into morning playlists. I speak clumsy, enthusiastic Spanish with students as we discuss language, identity, and the tenderness of their intersections. I travel with my love, Kris, himself a transplant from the South. We go places we’ve never been and revisit places we thought we wouldn’t return. I find that I am not broken, but blooming.
One August afternoon, we explored the Mercado Libertad in Guadalajara. I was still learning so much Spanish, barely able to bring myself to ask questions because I knew I wouldn’t understand the answers.
Then, a gust of hot breeze brought me a sweet, warm smell and I didn’t care what language came out of me. There was a swath of its alligator skin the size of my two hands and I was already reaching for it. I wanted to tell the vendor everything, my mouth grasping noiselessly for words I didn’t know well enough to trust. As the vendor swung a well-worn machete, I spoke at last, and he smiled with polite confusion.
Kris had heard about chakka for years, and he took the piece I offered with the reverence of handling something holy, something straight from my heart. Later, rolling a polished seed in my palm, I told him the awkward nonsense I had said to the fruit vendor. It came out something like, “This is mine, this and I grow from the same mother.”