Columns, Opinions

Divya Santhanam: Idlies for the collegiate soul

Guest Columnist
Friday, May 24, 2019

I used to have a blue lunch box. I can’t remember the exact shade of blue, but I remember the coarseness of its fabric as I opened it on the first day of senior kindergarten. It had enough space for a Ziploc bag and a stainless steel, or as my mother would say, ever-silver thermos. Inside it was a note in my dad’s typewriter-like handwriting: “Good luck D, we love you always. Amma and Appa.” Underneath was a thermos of pillowy soft idlies, soaked in hearty sambar, my mother’s favorite food. As I opened it, I could smell the warm scent of our kitchen — the laughter of my grandparents, the sound of our pressure cooker emitting steam, the background noise of Sun TV’s latest Tamil dramas.

“Ew, what is that?” a girl who sat diagonally from me called out as she pointed to my thermos filled with idlies. I heard peals of laughter and felt the corners of my mouth wobble. The desk had never been so brown and the lunch box never so blue. In retrospect, it might have been gray, but in that moment it was blue, as blue as the crayon I used to write in my mom’s phonebooks, so blue that I wanted to drown in it. The memory is blurry, but I can remember its tint and scent. Waxy blue and fermented rice gone bad. For the next three years, I ate my lunch under the desk. The lunch box slowly turned into a Sobeys bag, and then ceased to exist at all in high school, when I managed to fit my thermos into the first zip of my backpack.

During November break of my first year at Brown, I went home for the first time in months and returned with a plastic box chock full of idlies, smeared with fresh hand-ground malaga pudi. As I unpacked my suitcase and opened my mini-fridge, my roommate asked me, “What is that?” I launched into a performed, sanitized explanation of idlies being a form of fermented rice, but she surprised me with, “Can I have some?” I sprinkled water from our nearby sink (sorry, had to remind readers that I lived in West Andrews) and warmed it in the microwave. After handing her a piece, she chewed on it and then paused. “This is some good shit,” she responded matter-of-factly. Ever since, my mom sent double the food, and my first-year floor gathered to eat her soft rotis, perfectly spiced pav bhaji and crunchy manchurian in our basement kitchen. I don’t know how to describe what that felt like, a group of people relishing what I once feared to be seen with, but the knots in my stomach that slowly formed over the years began to unravel.

This was the start of dinners that would turn into late-night conversations, spent in Andrews Lounge savoring hot, 2 a.m. cookie pizzas. Watching the azure sky turn to midnight and then the placid yellow of sunrise, we discussed our childhoods, our families, the borders we had crossed and the borders crossed within us. It was here that I witnessed relationships that were deeply untransactional, where doors were open at any hour of the night when I needed comfort, where arms were always open when I needed warmth, without expecting anything in return. Where people gave, and gave freely. It’s an ethos that is rare, and one I have been privileged to witness in the communities I have been a part of during my time here. Last week, I ventured with four of my housemates to IHOP at 4 a.m. to mark the beginning of the fast as part of Ramadan. As I fell asleep on the shoulder of a friend waiting for our food to come, I realized that after years of longing to return home to Toronto, I was at home here.

There are aspects of Brown that still feel unfamiliar. There are spaces that I do not feel that I belong to and, by virtue of the complex identities my peers hold, spaces that will always remain elusive and unknown to many of us. But through the communities I have joined, those I have built, those I have reshaped and those that have reshaped me — I feel a palpable loss thinking about walking through the Van Wickle Gates. I’ve tasted the warm tinge of belonging, and I want it to linger on the tip of my tongue forever.

Instead, it’s time to leave. It feels counterintuitive, to have made the unfamiliar familiar, and to now walk away from it and watch it fade and distort into something else. What am I leaving behind? And what does it mean to start something new entirely? The unknown tastes of mist — sparse and disparate, frustratingly airy but fresh with promise. And, as I step into it, the warmth of what I gained here remains.

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