The cookie, the letter and the birthday

Anusha Srinivasan writes about three lingering memories attached to objects from her childhood, illustrated by Riddhi Desai.

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Today I will call my brother, and ask him about the ma’amoul.

I spent the best parts of my childhood in a country where the locals spoke Arabic. When I hear an accent that does not distinguish p from b, I want to go up to them and say Hi. I want to tell them I like the way the English language behaves under their tongue, even if we made fun of it years ago. I want to tell them about the kuboos we ate growing up, the heat that burnt our feet, the dust storms that made buildings vanish, the cats that seemed to be everywhere, the meat that hung in revolving inverted cones.

The ma’amoul is a soft, thick cookie filled with dates. It is not too sweet, and the buttery crumbs stick to your fingers. It is perfect in every way, my brother interrupts me.

A few days ago, I came across a store that claimed to sell Middle Eastern foods. Once inside, I spent many minutes looking at the products with Arabic lettering. I traced the font with my finger, from right to left. And there it was, a soft, thick cookie filled with dates.

It wasn’t the same, I tell my brother, but it was good enough.



Today I will call my sister, and ask her if she remembers the soft giraffe toy we had. Neon green with yellow patches. Was it a key-chain?

Remember, it was our first sale. We went to an adult whom we didn't think of as an adult, and we told her to please buy it. 5 Rupees only.

Whose is it, she asked us. We didn't know.

It had been lying around. Maybe given to us by an aunt visiting from abroad, with cheap toys made in China and bought at 50% off elsewhere, reminders of people who liked us for three months in a year but not much for longer than that.

What will you do with the money, she wanted to know. We will donate all the money to kids who don't have anything. There is this place where they stay. They go to school and pray and someone gives them clothes and maybe toys. I read about it in the paper.

She bought it and then we were off. We collected everything we didn't like, had no use for, stopped playing with.

We took a plastic bag from the kitchen, and a pouch for our earnings. We went knocking on several doors. Just the building at first. The street next. Then two streets over. Until an old lady asked us if our parents knew where we were and offered to call home. We didn't wait for her to buy anything from us, we ran back the way we came.

A week later, when the afternoon heat put everyone to sleep, I took out the pouch. Two hundred and fifty six rupees and some paise, all in coins. I walked to the post office and asked the man behind the counter how to send all this money to someone.

Do you know their address, he asked. Yes. I wrote it down. Yes. I know my address too. He counted the coins again. He wasn't very quick and I stood on my toes the whole time, trying to peer in. Quick, before they wake up. Count faster.

After a month, I received a letter. Thank you, it said, in many big words most of which I did not know. They were happy. They told me they would buy school books and stationery. But I was upset. They called me Mrs.

I was eight and my sister was six. We hid that letter and we lost it too.


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The year I was twelve and my father turned forty, I made him a greeting card. I drew a balding man with a paunch beginning to show through his shirt, a man who stooped slightly while walking because he is taller than average. I wrote Happy birthday old man! in my fancy handwriting. I hid it in his wardrobe, in a crack where he would never find it unless we were vacating the house and leaving the country, which I did not foresee happening. We smile shyly when we wish family members on birthdays and anniversaries, as if this were a habit we picked up from watching television. It was too emotional, too embarrassing, it felt right, but it wasn’t wholly me. Would he think it sweet, or would he think I was pretending? I still do not know. It lay there for many years, until he found it. We have not spoken about it, of course.

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