It was somewhere between Chandigarh and Dehradun that something clicked. It was winter. The sun shone weakly, and like on many rural highways in northern India, the trees formed a kind of canopy over the road, the car dipping in and out of the shade as it hurtled along. There were seas of yellow to the left and right, fields of mustard almost ready to be picked, and soon people all over Punjab would sit down for that classic winter dish of saag and makhi di roti, the mustard greens pulverized and cooked with chillies and served with a cornmeal flatbread.
The radio was on. Punjabi folk played, and I have no idea who had put it to that station or why. My cousin and her husband were driving me from the madness of two weddings just two days apart to meet my aunt and uncle halfway to their place in Dehradun, a small city in the foothills of the Himalayas that, at least by Indian standards, was quiet and serene.
As we drove and the music played, something just sort of fell into place. I didn’t understand the lyrics. That much hadn’t changed. But the music that I had spent a lifetime hearing suddenly made sense. Something about the air and mustard and the smells made the jangly, thrumming rhythm of Punjabi folk clear—the way its celebratory yet harsh tone evocative of a landscape was equally beautiful and punishing.
After being passed off from my cousins’ car to my aunt and uncle’s, we stopped a short while later at a roadside restaurant, a dhaba, and had poori aloo, deep-fried flatbreads and curried potato. Along with my meal I bit into a small green chilli with every mouthful, something I would never do at home in Toronto, an electric pain rippling across my tongue.
I returned to Chandigarh a few days later so that I could fly back home. Chandigarh in December is cold and smoky at night, the frequent fog often mingling with the roadside fires into a pleasantly acrid haze. People wrapped in shawls sit around steel drums on the sides of streets, and in middle-class homes, people do the same in front of TVs.
That evening, a few cousins and I had decided to go to a Pizza Hut, in part because they had beer there. On the way home, buzzed and full, someone had the bright idea to stop at a paan stall. I think I had tasted paan once before, choking it down after mediocre Chinese food in a strip mall in the same city about a decade earlier. Paan is something of a mystery to me, and frankly, I sort of want it to stay that way. It is, to the best of my knowledge, a betel leaf wrapped around areca nut and a variety of other fillings, sometimes including coconut, and at others tobacco. People chew it for ages, some spitting streaks of red saliva on the ground around them. The first time, I chewed for a brief few seconds and, immediately put off by the sharp, acrid flavours, swallowed just to get it over with.
This time was no better. We treated the spot like a drive-thru, pulling the car up and ordering four neat green bundles. While my cousins all seemed to relish it like one might a cigarette—sharp, self-destructive and thus all the more pleasurable for it—I again wanted the harsh, bittersweet flavour out of my mouth as soon as possible. Once more, I swallowed out of necessity. I called for water. They laughed. Firangi they called me—foreigner—and they weren’t wrong.
It had been a frustrating couple of weeks for me in India. I had left halfway through a very belated gap year in Scotland and Ireland to arrive in India for two of my cousins’ weddings. The quiet, dull grey of Europe’s western edges was replaced with the blaring assault on the senses that is northern India and, already dislodged from my home in Toronto, I couldn’t handle the change. I hated it, suddenly frustrated with ritual and dust and noise and family, away from a girlfriend who was now in Ireland and, if I weren’t always so afraid of everything, I should have asked to come with me.
It was over quickly, though, and the feelings passed. Years later, as I now begin to creep into middle age, I’ve settled into that uneasy comfort with the various cultural milieus that make up my identity. Indian foods I used to hate even well into my 20s—bitter karela, sulphurous chaat, scorching chillies—are things I now love. I sip whisky and listen to modern Pakistani fusion, the lyrics completely foreign to me and the aural textures and melodic undulations feeling unusually like home.
A few years ago, some family friends came over for dinner, and with them they had brought a bottle of paan liqueur. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. It remained closed since, lying on a drinks trolley, no one in my immediate family curious enough to try it. But prodded by some recent discussion of paan, I opened it only to find I didn’t like this much either, mostly because it did a pretty good job of tasting like sweet paan. The dominant flavour was gulkand, a sugar-saturated preserve made of rose petals that is sometimes put into betel leaf.
It reminded me of all those Indian things that in my mind are simply too much: the sickly sweet taste of jalebi, which, as far as I can tell, is just deep-fried syrup; the too-floral aroma of rooh afza, a bright-pink concentrate of flowers and herbs; or the street-side omelettes you get in India that are half egg, half butter, and all heart attack, served in a little bowl.
But then, these complaints are just those of a firangi. I’ve missed whatever alchemic mixture of landscape, temperature, and light I needed to understand the appeal of these things. What I captured with folk music on the roads of the Himachal Pradesh I haven’t been able to replicate elsewhere. That is what culture is, though: a time and place creates a way of doing and experiencing things, and you can’t neatly translate it from one to another.
What you can do is nudge yourself from the familiar to the slightly less so. And something I know well is a finger or two of brown liquor in a small glass. So make it a glass of Jaan, the paan liqueur—and here’s the kicker—that is actually made in Oakville, a suburb about an hour west of Toronto.
That’s how things blur, though. How things change. Sometimes, the only thing that makes sense is to gulp down a thing that tastes unfamiliar, even unpleasant, until a reddish haze develops around the corners of your consciousness and everything starts to soften a bit: the gaps, the language that sounds so familiar but that you don’t speak, the taunts that laced your childhood, the unbroachable aporia between you and your family, the aching of a world that is yours and not. You just have another sip, and then another, and then you refill your glass and do it again until, finally, something clicks.