The garage reminded me of my mom. She was the
only one who paid much attention to it. Situated in between my Greenwich Village apartment and Jack’s Falafel
(where, as she would say, they “irresponsibly” threw rice on the sidewalk for
the “flying rats” to congregate in numbers to eat), the garage and its cars
constantly encroached upon my sidewalk and was “incredibly dangerous” for
pedestrians. My mother constantly
warned me that a car would come out of the darkness and injure me while I
“daydreamed like some kind of hooligan.” And daydream I did as I walked back
from Nomaan’s Falafel (for which I braved the walk for a cheaper price and more
authentic sounding name than Jack’s).
As I walked past the garage, I felt my eyes roll
to the corners as I pictured with cinematic clarity how it would feel to get
hit by a car. I only imagined it
visually, never thinking about the sounds or the pain. I always pictured it in third person,
like a camera looking on to the car slowly coming out of the dark abyss like
some sort of diablo-ex-machina, catching every frame of the impact in slow
motion from the horizon of my body inward.
“It wouldn’t be so bad,” I joked with my mom
once, “The crutches would be an excuse to
finally go to Jack’s.”
Having thought of my mother, I decided to call
my parents once I got to my apartment. As always, they asked me about what I
ate. I told them about the falafel
and the sub I had eaten earlier.
“So what else is going on?” I said.
“Hmm… we’ve lost our culture.”
“The perugu, son. We can’t make it anymore, we’ve just
been eating American yogurt or sour cream or buttermilk.” Making yogurt at home
is a lengthy but routine process that requires a small amount to be preserved
from batch to batch so that new milk can be fermented. Nobody knows who made
the first culture, but it would seem that families like us around the world
were dining on the descendents of some great bacterial progenitor from long
ago. My parents had failed to keep
enough to make new yogurt or their culture had somehow spoiled because of weather
changes or something.
“Oh, no big deal.” I think I lost my culture
long ago, but that was more the victim of apathy, not improper anaerobic conditions. “For a second I thought you were going
to make me go to some Arangetram.”
“Funny, your dad made the same joke. But thanks for reminding me, Pooja is
dancing in a few weeks I think you should come home and go with us. You remember Pooja don’t you?”
“Chennarapalli, you probably met her at Ramarao
I couldn’t think of a good excuse not to go in
enough time and got stuck having to go home in a few Saturdays.
And so I heard more and more in the proceeding
weeks about the missing culture. The light and worry-free tone I heard in my mother’s voice the first
time she told me about the yogurt’s disappearance faded. A sense of desperation crept in
instead. Using imperfect substitutes was taking a physical and mental toll on
“It’s amazing how many people don’t eat perugu
anymore. People change so
easily,” she would say. My mother could barely sleep without it. Her stomach was so used to yogurt that anything
else would keep her up at night. Family and friends were no help. Some sort of global epidemic had destroyed the bacteria cultures of
Indian families throughout the northeast United States. It was said there were still successful
yogurt cultures south of the Mason-Dixon, where the climate more closely
mirrored the hot and humid tropical weather of our motherland. But traveling down south was too
difficult; their contacts in that region were tenuous at best and the road too
treacherous for the bacteria that had apparently become so fragile.
As culture loss spread wider and wider people
began to come up with theories. The news even hit the press. My mom forwarded me an article from India Abroad: Indian
Americans in the Northeast are facing confusion as they watch one of their main
food staples disappear: homemade yogurt or curd, also known as perugu, thayir,
and dahi. The delicate
bacteria cultures required to make the yogurt have been dying off.
Some blame antibiotics in the milk and
antibacterial cleaners around the house.
“Just like they are destroying our immune
systems, they are destroying our food,” said Krishnababu Rao, a New Jersey
Sitanjali Srinivasan of New York suspects a
conspiracy, “The heavily
subsidized U.S. Dairy Farmers are seeking to promote their higher margin
buttermilk and yogurt products to the growing Desi populace.” The Indian
demographic has thus far been unusually resistant to pre-made products, eating
out, and other, profitable consumer activities. When contacted, America’s Milk Processor’s declined to
It is unclear whether this is the beginning of
the end of Indian curd in the United States. People are not, however, going to sit around idly and watch
it happen. As one boy, 12, from
Edison, N.J. put it, “We will fight whomever did this until we get our
The Friday of that weekend, I was supposed to go
home was the holiday Holi. The
stars, the planets, the heavens, must have been especially aligned that day
because it was apparently also Purim, Good Friday, and the Spring Equinox. I called my parents in honor of Holi,
but I may as well have chosen any or all of the above.
“It’s good you called, we need you to do
something before you come home,” said my father.
My parents, unable to take it anymore, had pulled
out all the stops. Reaching out to
every known friend, relative and relative of relatives and friends, they
finally came across a valid, living culture. The maker, my mother’s cousin’s wife’s sister’s
mother-in-law who was conveniently located in Queens, somehow defied the tides
of destruction and preserved a perfect yogurt culture. My mission was to retrieve a sample and
bring it home with me the next day.
And so that afternoon I grabbed my iPod, popped
in my noise-cancelling earbuds and set off for Jackson Heights. My destination was only a few blocks
from the Roosevelt Avenue subway station and I arrived in 20 minutes flat. I knocked heavily on the door. Sumitra Auntie answered, “Oh, it’s been
so long since I’ve seen you. Your
mother was right, you have changed so much. I remember, you were much smaller, and I think a little
I feigned a smile and looked past her. The operative color of this townhouse
was red. The wallpaper had an Oriental red design. The spectrum of the white lights seemed to have degraded to
the low-end reds. The light
reflected off her dull sari, dancing between earthy beige and the red of
the lights. The smell was the red
of chili powder and mango pickle.
She sat me down and offered me food, which I
knew to accept without a fuss. She
asked me about work and family. I
responded tersely, with a fake grin. Growing tired of the questions, I began to trail off at the ends of my
sentences, hoping to trick her into thinking she had a hearing problem. Instead, her pupils dropped toward her
eyelids before perking back up in a smile. She began to talk louder, as if I
were the one with the hearing problem.
“YOU KNOW, THE YOGURT IS VERY GOOD FOR THE
GOOD.” I unconsciously let myself roll my eyes this time, thinking about the
statistic that 90 percent of Asians are to some degree lactose intolerant. But when I finished eating the spicy idli
sambar she had given me I was grateful to be able to cool down my mouth and
stomach with some freshly made yogurt. It was much more refreshing than I had remembered, but maybe that’s because
it had been so long.
“Do you want to know my secret?” she said in a
quieter voice as if she was afraid it would get out, “I treat my culture like a
child: a gift, a responsibility.” And she told me about her 20-year-old fridge and her meticulous yogurt
making routine. And then she asked
me where my ice chest was.
The one detail my parents forgot, the one item I
was missing. “In that case”, she
said, holding her chest high, and her left hand out, “you will need to take
this and make sure you get it in your fridge within one hour at the most, I
don’t know whether you will even be able to take it home to your parents.”
Fine, I thought, once I get it to my apartment I
will be able to come up with something.
And I saw her pour a little bit of yogurt into
an empty glass mango pickle jar, which she then carefully placed into a
brown paper bag and handed to me, sending me on my way with a few words of
goodbye and several words of caution.
I could go home and come back and go home again
within an hour, I thought. And so
I ambled down the street toward the subway enjoying the song in my ears, Paul
Simon’s “American Tune.”
“Due to routine maintenance, all Manhattan-bound
trains will be bypassing this stop.
Please take the Jamaica-bound E and transfer at
Forest Hills to the Manhattan bound train.”
I spent 30 minutes waiting for the train, ignoring
the judging glances from people at the paper bag wrapped cylindrical object in
my hand. When all was said and
done, I made it back to the subway stop by my apartment in 54 minutes. I had 6 minutes to spare before the
culture in my hand would spoil and reincarnate as some deadly disease. I
paused, rationalizing that my parents would understand if the yogurt didn’t
make it home safely, that they had probably passed the denial phase and were
ready to move on. But the cool
taste lingered in my mouth and stomach.
So I ran for it. I hauled ass up the stairs and up the block, almost knocking
over a bum in a wheelchair. I
heard multiple honks with that distinct yellow cab blare as I diagonally
crossed two streets. And finally I
arrived on my block. I skillfully
evaded the pigeons outside Jack’s falafel that had at this point grown too used
to humans to run out of the way. I headed toward my apartment building with two
minutes to spare.
And then, the world panned out behind me. A man across the street watched as I
turned my head to the right and saw the Mercedes peace sign approach my
side. The impact was much more
sudden and much less calculated than I had imagined. The jar flew out of my hand.
The man across the street watched the brown
paper bag as it arced through the air, until its contents flew from within and
crashed, startling the pigeons. The yogurt inside erupted spectacularly and garnished the rice on the
sidewalk. The pigeons, overcoming
their astonishment, lapped it up.
Weeks later, my parents forwarded me another India
Sumitra Bharat of Jackson Heights, beloved
mother and grandmother, died in a house fire Monday morning. She was an active member of the local
Indian community who recently gained fame for having the last active yogurt
culture in the northeast. The
cause of the fire is presumed to have been electrical. Mrs. Bharat was hard of hearing. It is believed she was unable to hear
the smoke alarm. Funeral services
will be held in India, at her family’s ancestral home.