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Non-Fiction Short Pieces

Transformed by Fire

In the deserted Cambridge cemetery, the wind cut into me like a scalpel — precise and ruthless — detaching me from my lifelong consciousness of being a cherished child. I trudged uphill until I reached my destination — the crematory beside the chapel. Inside, my mother’s body, in a simple covered casket, lay in front of the incinerator.
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Banana Blossom

Once, during a visit to Calcutta, I was invited to lunch by a woman whose reputation as a Bengali cook made me accept with delighted anticipation. The meal she served surpassed my expectations. What stood out above all the expensive fish and meat was her mochar ghanto, a fragrant dish consisting of banana blossom, or mocha, combined with tiny cubed potatoes, tinier coconut chips, chickpeas, and spices. It’s a classic of Bengali cuisine which is known for its flavorful yet delicate use of spices and a wide range of ingredients.

Double Roti

The very first sandwich served to me in the United States petrified me with its size and heft. I had just arrived from Calcutta and was going to spend ten days in a Pennsylvania town with one of my uncles and his American wife, before traveling to Cambridge to start graduate school. This, my uncle had written to my anxious parents, would be the easiest way for me to segue into a new life.

The day after my arrival, he took me out to see “America” at close quarters. After a long, pleasurable morning replete with historical sights and novel, sometimes eye-popping, encounters — the dazzling, escalator-laced interior of an American department store was a splendid antidote to the musty, neon-lit, static shops I was familiar with — my uncle decided it was time to eat.  We went to one of his favorite restaurants, famous for its sandwiches.  

Bittersweet in Bengal

It was during my first visit to Sadarghat, Dhaka’s biggest river terminal, that I first encountered what looked like pale green noodles. Appearance, however, was not reality. A cucumber had been artfully transformed by a young man in a food vendor’s stall.

Sadarghat milled with a truculent energy, to which a Babel of dialects, all Bengali, yet frequently unintelligible, gave voice. The occasional bleating of a goat or the clucking of chickens added to the cacophony. Steamboats loomed over us from their moorings. Farther away bobbed smaller fishing boats pinpointed by the diminutive beams of lanterns and oil lamps. Fumes of diesel and kerosene infused the air along with the odors of organic refuse, fried fish, chili pepper, garlic, onion and spiced meats. The commercial pulse of the city throbbed around me.