What Freddie Mercury Taught Me About Breaking Free

I’m not sure how I get onto my tangents, but the other night I was thinking about Freddie Mercury and wondering why it was that he never talked much about his background- born an Parsi with parents from India in Zanzibar during British rule, years spent in boarding school in Bombay, and moving to London as a teenager. His silence on the topic seems to have led many to think he must have loathed his South Asian identity (he never struck me as a self-loathing man). Turns out, in giving precious few interviews, Freddie never talked much about *anything.*

I came across this thought piece which poses some interesting questions and makes a positive conclusion:

And it is also possible that Freddie was not “stuck” in multiple worlds — though he was rejected from most — but liberated. And maybe he had the right idea about  culture — that he was not Indian, Zoroastrian, British, or Zanzibarian — but quite simply, he was all that became of his passion: rock ‘n’ roll.

I understand being between worlds and being an outsider. I understand moving to the country of your parents’ origin as an adolescent and feeling like I have nothing in common with this place yet knowing it was part of what made me who I am. I understand the desire to not be labeled or to have to claim labels.

I was thinking about a recent conversation I had with a friend on the need for people to ask a person of color for their credentials to write a story related to his or her culture. As I am writing more, I realize that I write almost…nothing…Indian. My characters often are but it’s incidental or a sub-plot. Am I expected to write on Indian topics? Why must we draw these lines and distinctions? Perhaps finally I feel fatigued by identity politics.

What if we just didn’t talk about it? What if we just didn’t give people fodder to strike back? What if we just shrugged our shoulders and stopped defending the work and let it speak for itself? Maybe we should just keep people guessing (and use ambiguity where we can take it to do so).

Maybe we should all be like Freddie. I know he didn’t write Bollywood tunes (though wouldn’t it have been amazing if had?) or cultural lyrics for anyone to quiz him on his credentials; his ethnic ambiguity prevented people from asking about his credentials to write rock’n roll. His extreme privacy thwarted people from asking him much at all. (I would bet that he would have hated Twitter.)

Many are genuinely curious about an author’s inspiration and background influences. But there are some who seek to claim an author’s legitimacy. I found how Freddie navigated -or rather, didn’t navigate – his identity to be an interesting foil, yet completely fitting for a third-culture kid who was neither truly from Africa, India, or Britain (which are really more national than ethnic identities). Isn’t it after all similar to how I prefer to say that my parents are from India, but I was born in America? Perhaps most tellingly, being Indian/Asian in the UK in the 1960s was fraught with negative societal attitudes towards brown immigrants.

Volumes are spoken in the things not said. Even all his Queen band mate drummer Roger Taylor had to say about  his heritage was “Freddie did play (being Indian) down a bit. I think it was because he felt people wouldn’t equate being Indian with rock and roll.” I think it’s equally important to note Freddie never allowed himself to be defined as gay, straight, or bisexual: he was what was. And the world loved him for it.

I think what Freddie got intuitively was that there was no room for the barriers of “I vs. them” in order to have global appeal, and I think it was the very nature of his multiple layers of Other-ness that allowed him to be himself and to create his own path. Some of the art that has the most impact tends to be intersectional and genre-blending/bending. I think of others like: Prince, George Michael, and Michael Jackson.

Ultimately, here’s what his parents – the only people that matter with regards to this question – had to say: “He was kind and very respectful both to myself and his father.” And “…when he wasn’t away on tour, he would come home regularly. He always liked my cooking, especially my dahls, sweet and sour mince and cheese biscuits.” Even though he was the world’s biggest superstar at the time, he respected his parents and went home to eat his mother’s dahl. How very South Asian indeed.

I think Freddie perfectly captures how I feel about identity in the lines “I want to break free.”

The Creative Process

As I’ve been experiencing a resurgence in my writing, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the creative process. How do ideas come into being? How are stories, poems, sketches, and songs created? Is it better to schedule in consistent, daily times for writing or is it better to write when the ideas move you?

The Idea
Some poems and stories flow from my brain as whole pieces, like Athena being born from Zeus’ head. Last year, I wrote a complete science fiction short story in my mind as I was about to fall asleep. Ideally I’d have penned it that night or the next morning, but I’m only pulling it out my brain now. Other ideas start out as a tiny spark: a scene, an image, a line of dialogue, a collection of notes, or a writing prompt. These ideas tend to need time and even research to flesh out.

Schedules and Word Counts
I’ve learned from a published YA author that it’s taken her vastly different times to complete novels of similar word counts; each one has been unique. Once an idea is on the page, it often takes on a life of its own. She also sets a goal of writing 1,000 words per day. A word count per day (or even week) may be a better way of approaching things for me rather than “I will shut the door and write between 10-12,” as my own creativity tends to ebb and flow. During one writing session at a ski lodge a few weeks ago, I stared out the window and listened to “Wham! Rap” the whole time, tickled by the “DHSS” refrain. On another occasion, the words didn’t come to me try as I might, so I spent the time outlining stories instead, pulling together ideas that had been floating in my head. Reaching a tangible, non-time-bound goal such as “I am finishing/revising this story today” or “I am writing 500 words this afternoon” may be a good middle ground. It’s routine and schedule that I find constraining.

I’ve read a lot about the writing schedules and habits of successful authors: morning vs. evening, outlines vs. no outlines, multiple vs. single projects, schedule vs. none (ok, most writers do tend to have some schedule). A former colleague and part-time writer told me that writing in the morning worked for him even if he wasn’t a morning person, because that way no matter what happened the rest of the day, the writing didn’t get bumped by errands, email, or work. In high school and college, I liked writing in the night, especially between about 10-11 pm because it was quiet and calming with daytime tasks done. I spent this time in different ways: to actualize ideas bursting at the seams, to revise, to gather information, or to read a book. It’s a time that still works for me.

Accountability
Ideas often come to me on a whim, and I try to write them down. But especially with stories, if I don’t treat them like work…I will not execute. I will allow other distractions to get in my way. I have work. I have errands. I have appointments. Also, the words don’t just pour out of me. They tend to be in a fog and I have to put a few down before more will come. What I am starting to see is that for me is that writing begets more writing. It’s a virtuous cycle, much like exercise (or so I hear).

What also works for me is establishing “public” accountability. When I was in the ski lodge, I told my girlfriends: ok, I’m going to go write for an hour now. After I came back, they would ask “How did it go?” and knowing that I needed to answer kept me honest. Sometimes I need a draft, rough as it may be, to work out where I want to or could go. A draft serves as the substrate, something I can react to in order to identify the gaps and think of the connectors. Sometimes I need to walk out the door and down the street before I can draw the rest of the map. Sometimes I need to get lost before I can find my way.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery
I love reading about writers’ processes. I’ve read and heard that writers like Neil Gaiman and Teri Pratchett take a journalistic approach of writing as work, rather than waiting for inspiration to hit. When I was on deadline for my college paper, I generated 500 words, rain or shine. Once in a while, they were good.

Recently, I’ve been getting more into the process of comedy writers like Tina Fey in developing sketches: it’s much more collaborative than writing stories and poems. Their process more closely resembles my professional life, where we have a topic, formulate objective and format, collaborate internally, review with external group leaders, present to a larger group of stakeholders, write and edit drafts, integrate comments, etc. Whether I’m inspired or not, the writing gets done. If I get stuck, I know the time is right to hand it off to a colleague. Inspiration plays a role here too. Some days I’m just not feeling it, so I let it to go a revisit it the next day (deadlines don’t always allow for this luxury).

Over the years I’m finding that writing might be a combination of both inspiration hitting and devoting the time to working on it. The “right brain” seems to be responsible for idea generation and that period of time where I just write and it flows. The “left brain” seems to be responsible for the more analytical tasks involved in planning, outlining, editing, and revising.

“If Music Be the Food of Love”
For me, music is the crux upon which my creativity rests. I almost cannot write unless I am listening to something I love. I have written so many poems to the beat of songs. Music focuses rather than distracts me, and I derive something unseen from that energy.

Songwriting itself fascinates me. I played piano for seven years, I can still follow sheet music, and I pay a lot of attention to musical arrangements. However, I don’t know the first thing about writing a song. What does that even mean? How do you bring together chords, melody, and lyrics? I had this idea of someone sitting at a piano or with a guitar and writing notes down meticulously on beautiful, blank sheet music stationery. Ok, I think some artists (like Stevie Nicks) create piano demos which then go into production. Others in bands appear to jam. I love what Sting has to say about about starting with an idea around which he can build a whole song, not just the first line because then he has to write the second line. It’s very conceptual and reminds me of how image-based poetry is written. Elton John has had a lifelong partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin in which Taupin provides a series of lyrics and John writes the melodies-it’s unusual, but it works for them. Yet more unique seem to be those musicians who come to the table with the entire song in their heads, like George Michael or Michael Jackson, who sang each instrument part into a tape recorder. While Michael seemed to have total control over all the parts, Jackson had a more collaborative relationship with producers like Quincy Jones.

Zero songwriting ability aside, I am convinced that I write at all because of that initial love I had for music. Learning piano taught me about rhythm. I started writing poetry the year after I started playing, and perhaps this is no coincidence at all. When I write poetry and stories, I feel the same exhilaration that I used to when playing piano. My fingers flow with joy over the keyboard with flourishes – as though I am playing an instrument.

Quick note on pen/pencil and paper vs. typing: I used to write poems by hand and still do on occasion when I need or crave the tactile element; I started hand-writing stories, but transitioned to computer fairly quickly, as I was too impatient to write prose by hand. I imagine this is partly generational; I also wonder if I viewed the computer keyboard as an appropriate parallel to a piano keyboard. President Obama enjoys writing first drafts long-hand on yellow legal pad. I have toyed with using voice recording to capture ideas but the translation from mind to voice still eludes me.

Ultimately, I only have my best practices to share:

  1. Write down your ideas: If you have an unreliable memory like me, writing down an idea before it slips from your consciousness can be helpful. You can jot it down on a post-it note, type it into your phone, or scribble into an email or notebook. Just don’t write it on your hand.
  1. Make time to execute your projects: Time is a finite resource. Others have expounded on tips for how to make time but this is up to you. It may mean sacrificing other tasks that are less important, but only you can decide what those are. Can laundry and dishes wait until morning? Can you skip a social event? Think about what you can let go. Prioritize: this is hard, involves trade-offs, and it cannot be underestimated.
  1. Experiment with different processes: Do you like to outline? Do you like to draft? Do you need to set goals such as a word count, hours, or a time bloc? If you don’t know, try it all out and see what works and what doesn’t. As you experiment, you will begin to understand the style and process that suits you.
  1. Develop your writing into a habit: Write every day. Or at least every few days. Make it a habit. Once it becomes one, you’ll want to do it (like exercise, so I’m led to believe). It will be something you look forward to doing. Yes, it’s work, but work you want, need and love, right?
  1. Give yourself a break: Nobody’s a machine. Find out what works for you during the process and to reset you during down times. Music, tea, reading. Sometimes, it’s about the magic that happens in between as your unconscious sorts it all out (in bed, in the shower, on the metro).

Or just toss all these notions out the window and just write!

How George Michael Helped Me Reconceptualize the Other

As I was diving more into George Michael as the person that was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou following his death, I was struck by the way in which he characterized the influence of his Greek background in interviews.

In this clip during a press conference for the documentary “A Different Story,” Michael answers an awkward, but well-meaning question from a journalist about the role of Greek music and culture in his life.

An Australian friend explained this to me in a way to me that I had never understood. I think just the fact that I’m not English, I think the fact that I am of “mixed race” as it were. I think Andrew [Ridgeley] and I, to people outside of England…we just somehow appeared different because there was something very un-English about us I suppose.

Michael goes on to discuss how his music had always been rooted in American R&B and how he and his Wham! band mate Ridgeley (who was English and Italian/Egyptian) had projected their sexuality in a way that was very un-British at the time. “It’s not like I listened to a lot of Greek music at home as a child, well not voluntarily anyway,” Michael says.

This last part made me laugh, as it reminded me of how I listened to Tamil music at home only kicking and screaming. I was also taken with his point here because he talks about what he’s not in a positive way, and what he’s not isn’t necessarily based in his roots, but in what he genuinely likes, which was American R&B. His definition of himself as the Other appears to be a far more compelling driver in his life than the elements of Greek heritage itself.

He discusses his upbringing further in this BBC interview.

My father was the absolute archetypal 1950’s immigrant from Cyprus. Very determined. And every single member of his family made something of themselves in this country. They’re a typical immigrant family that worked their asses off and reaped the rewards.

This description resonated with me as it reminded me so much of my own parents, who emigrated from India. It occurred to me hard work and determination is not something specific to any one culture; however, it is quite emblematic of immigrant status.

Michael also reveals that his mother’s origins weren’t English as she found out from her own mother when she died that she had been Jewish. Michael was not at all an Anglo-Saxon Brit, but in fact had these layered elements to his background. In his life, he navigated aspects of both cultural and sexual identity and being the Other as best as he could.

A light bulb went off in my head.

I am an unrepentant atheist. I do not have particular aspects of Indian culture to which I cling. I’ve learned to cook a few Indian dishes from my mom, but I will never be as adept as cooking is not an interest of mine. At the same time, I have a keen propensity for language and I speak fluent Tamil. I certainly do consider myself Indian.

I realize there is a great degree of variability among first-generation Americans* in terms of how they negotiate elements of identity with themselves, and that it is a personal decision. However, I went through this phase last year where I questioned whether to do more “Indian” things in terms of food or experiences, and it felt so unnatural, not like me at all. Or taking Michael’s own words “not voluntarily at least.”

As a writer of poetry and short fiction, I pursue topics that are of interest to me, regardless of origin. I do not necessarily feel the need to be an Indian or diaspora writer. In fact, I want to be an intersectional writer. Even when I delve into Indian mythology, I am pre-occupied by the Other as in a piece I wrote with Roshani Chokshi in Papercuts magazine to bring light to the voices of marginalized women in the Mahabharata – not the heroines – but the castaways. I am usually far more enamored with Sumerian/Babylonian and Celtic mythology. I gravitate towards what my heart wants.

I realized that my perception of myself as the Other has a far more defining – and even empowering – influence on my life than that of Indian or South Asian culture itself. And I am completely happy with that; in fact, understanding this is a huge weight off my shoulders.

It seems so obvious, but I needed to hear it from someone else.

*I am defining first-generation here as the first generation born in the United States.

Note: I clearly had too much to say about George Michael to relegate it to just one post.

You’re My Man: Reflecting on George Michael

A week after the 2016 U.S. presidential election,  I overheard a story on CBS Sunday Morning from my kitchen about Smokey Robinson. I came bounding into the living room with terror in my voice, “What happened to Smokey?” At this point, if I heard any more bad news, especially about a musical artist I loved, I was going to lose it. My spouse chirped “Oh, nothing! They’re just giving him an award.”

Unfortunately, 2016 did not go by on that sigh of relief. On Christmas Day just minutes after I was listening to “Last Christmas,” my all-time favorite holiday tune on account of being so brazenly forlorn, I learned that we lost George Michael. This time, I did lose it.

The year started and ended with the deaths of two of my favorite artists, David Bowie and George Michael. Unlike the way I pored over every style choice, every film foray, and every song lyric of Bowie, I never bantered on about how much I loved Michael or analyzed his music. In the wake of his passing, I wondered if it may have been because I didn’t need to. In every sense—his voice, songwriting, image, and charity—I felt his work stood for itself. At once transparent and private, he was just there. Until he wasn’t.

Michael had this subtle, elegant ability to subvert, reverse, and reclaim stereotypes and convey messages through brilliant subtext. He didn’t need personas. He didn’t need gimmicks or frills. He integrated soul and R&B into his work seamlessly while respecting and crediting his African-American influences. He hardly needed to do anything but make music—something that seemed to come so purely and effortlessly to him. He wrote “Careless Whisper” at 17. Like Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury, he had a true genius for songcraft and genre-blending.

With a strong handle on the abstract, Michael presented us with new uses for metaphors and structured multilayered meaning in his songs. It took me a long time to realize “Father Figure” did not refer to the sexualization of a parent, but held a deeper, spiritual meaning that I now understand on a metaphysical level but, much like the plays of W.B. Yeats, can’t quite articulate into words.

As a teenager in 1998, when I heard the news about Michael’s entrapment in a Los Angeles bathroom and the media subsequently raked him through the coals, I was confused and indignant—why are they ostracizing for him for being gay? Why were we not over this as a society already? The echoes of the life and tribulations of Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for “gross indecency” (in other words, being gay) and who died alone and too early from a prison-related injury, are not lost on me.

A child of the 80s, I’ve had a crush on George Michael for as long as I can remember. My mom sometimes likes to remind me “Oh, you liked him when you were five.” What? The blonde guy in the oversized white outfits?  When I was five? No way. Later on in my 20s, I reflected upon this and felt like it retroactively confirmed a pattern of mine: I had a slight tendency to fall for gay guys. Long before I fell for Anderson Cooper. Long before Michael was even officially out. Perhaps I always knew. Yes, there was a first so shh, no one can ever know.

In retrospect, Michael’s sexual identity seems so obvious. He was telling us all along, as Daniel Larkin so keenly notes in his piece “The Thinly Veiled Queerness of George Michael’s Love Songs.” Yet, his work transcends gender and sex. With songs like “Faith” and the ever unnecessarily controversial “I Want Your Sex,” he challenges us to remove the shackles of taboo and heteronormativity. In his live performances, he exudes this kind of bold sexuality that’s neither straight nor gay nor black nor white. It defies all labels. It’s kind of incredible. He’s just so… himself.

Earlier this year, I got through writing a scientific piece playing “Freedom 90” and “Fastlove” on repeat… for hours…days at a time to calm and focus me, until I refined every last word. This was when I started listening to Michael seriously again after many years and with a sudden, premonitory insistence. I remember listening to “Father Figure” and reading Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which analyzes the Arthurian legend of the Grail through the lens of pagan motifs, and finding the missing pieces of the puzzle I needed to outline a story I’ve long been attempting to write. Something about his music allows me to uncover and connect concepts.

George Michael's performance of "Fastlove" in London, 2008.

Nearly three years ago, a close childhood friend passed away at age 32 from breast cancer. She was a physician, a mother, a wife. My first memory of her was when my parents dropped me off at her house one evening while they were away. I was scared they wouldn’t return. Shy and insecure little thing I was, I remember her comforting and reassuring me. She was my first real friend. Throughout high school, she had encouraged my writing. I knew that she would have never wanted me to stop.  After she was gone, I wrote my first poem in three years. It was as though in her physical departure, she guided me back to poetry as a muse. From that moment, I have written and published some of my best work in years.

Part of me wonders if artists like Bowie, Prince, and Michael are simply too good for our emerging world: the era of Trump, misguided populism, and neo-Nazi, white ethno-nationalism. We don’t deserve them. The thought haunts me in the back of my brain. These artists have worked so hard for and have contributed to so much for which Trump and his entourage stand against. Are we seriously going to unwind the clock on LGBT rights and other social progress? On multiculturalism? I live in a world where I can watch a woman with my skin tone, Priyanka Chopra, kicking butt on ABC with other women, many also of color. I can’t go back now.

My friend and fellow blogger Sitting Pugs mused, “Who’s going to continue the struggle now?”

Compounded by the election, I poured my grief over Michael’s death into my writing. I outlined and started short stories I’ve been hesitating on for months. Reading Michael Darer’s stellar piece in The Huffington Post on “Why losing George Michael hurts especially badly in 2016” brought into laser-sharp focus what I need to do. Just in time for 2017, I have the beginnings of a roadmap-infused with Michael’s own unbridled optimism in the face of adversity-to lead me through this quagmire. Now more than than ever, I feel the urgency to respond and fight with writing. Because it really is the one good thing that I’ve got.

I’ve taken the death of Michael really hard—as if I knew him personally—because even though I loved him, I too underrated him. The sheer irony of him is that I didn’t realize how much he meant to me until he was gone. But I also think in all his sly humor and cheek, that’s exactly how he would have wanted it to be. And in his exit, he has given me the ultimate gift of becoming my muse.

From Yonkers with Heart: Show Me a Hero

On the long flight to India and back, I decided I would watch the HBO six-episode miniseries Show Me a Hero, an engaging, slow-burn drama about the struggle to implement affordable, integrated public housing in Yonkers, New York in the late 1980s and the role of young Councilman turned Mayor Nick Wasicsko. The white middle class strongly opposed construction of the new houses in their neighborhoods, federally mandated to desegregate public housing. Yonkers is the city of my birth, and my parents lived here from 1980-1987. I was only five and a half when we left, but I remember the brick and gabled houses, the rustle of the too orange fall leaves, the clarity of the sunlight through the ash and maple trees, and the walks in the park. 

I also wanted to see the series for Oscar Isaac, who has risen into prominence over the past year through his creepy and even off-putting Bluebeard in Ex Machina, conflicted anti-hero in A Most Violent Year (also set in New York during pivotal times), and rollicking, Resistance space pilot in the new Star Wars.

I highly recommend Show Me a Hero for its strong, nuanced performances, compelling character storylines, and quiet but powerful suspense. At first, I felt like here we go again, another civil rights story told through the lens of a white male politician, a young star and savior. However, the story doesn’t quite follow like that and while Isaac’s Wasicsko is the protagonist, the series spends a good amount of time independently telling the narratives of the women seeking a better life for themselves and their families, and making the razor-sharp point that access to housing is not just a civil right, it is a human right, intricately related to health, safety, and well-being. The series’ tone is unique and keeps you on a teetering edge. Not knowing Wasicsko’s story and given the last episode’s inconclusive denouement, the finale did catch me off guard.

I told my father about the series. He remembered the issue vaguely at first, and as I continued to summarize the plot, it came into focus. My father said that one of the proposed housing sites was a closed school very near our house in the Colonial Heights neighborhood of Yonkers. He reminded me that my mother used to take me for walks up to the school, shut down due to asbestos contamination, and that my uncle’s family lived in an apartment nearby. And suddenly, I remembered it all – of course, the abandoned school and the tempting but off-limits playground.

Alpine Road
My family’s old house in Yonkers. According to Redfin estimates, the value has appreciated by 110% in the last 20 years.

My father said at the time, he had asked a lawyer friend of his if the housing mandate would be implemented, and that the lawyer said that Judge Sand was liberally-oriented and would enforce the order. For my parents, it was an issue just above their horizon. They sold the house at a good profit and moved on… So, it seems like none of the nightmare scenarios of public housing integrated in primarily white areas reducing property values and increasing crime came to pass. Though the fight didn’t pave the way for similar struggles in other cities, as hoped.

I also mulled on the nature of the politician as individual and politician as enactor of public policy. While Wasicsko’s efforts paid off for many low-income African-American and Hispanic families in Yonkers, his own relevance, credit, and power declined, and his impact seems to have been largely forgotten until now.

I look forward to finding out more in Lisa Belkin’s book on which the series was based.

Options for watching Show Me a Hero.

The Charm of the City

The riots in Baltimore last Monday found me turning on the news in wide-eyed disbelief and biting my nails, as I frantically called and texted my friends. It seems that everything that has to be said has been said a million times over, so I just wanted to take this opportunity to share my personal experience of the city.

Baltimore is a city that I studied and worked in for over three years, until I moved to DC in 2013. I remember the first time I took in the vista of East Baltimore. I had driven up with my father. My brand new car stood out, gleaming silver in a landscape that resembled T.S. Eliot’s waste land. I found the number of boarded-up and abandoned row houses particularly difficult to comprehend.

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I had decided to work at the world’s leading public health institution, and I was proud of my choice. But at the time, I chose not to live in Baltimore. Instead, I lived in suburban Columbia and commuted. I knew nothing then.

In the months that followed, I cowered from the city, hesitating to park on the street, carefully investigating areas before venturing over, and leaving early from nighttime gatherings. This was despite the fact that many of my colleagues were die-hard Baltimoreans, champions of a new and revitalized, more integrated city.

Then I met my future husband on a grimy and gravelly corner of East Madison and North Broadway. After that, the doors of Baltimore opened for me. Our first date was at Camden Yards, a gorgeous venue for baseball (even if you don’t like baseball). In the next few weeks, I remember walking down Federal Hill in the misty twilight to watch David Byrne’s True Stories at the American Visionary Art Museum, enjoying French-inspired cuisine at Marie Louis Bistro, drinks at The Horse You Came In On, the last place Edgar Allen Poe was seen, and walking around Mt. Vernon Square.

Mt Vernon Square was a center of activity, hosting First Thursday outdoor concerts on the green during the summer and an annual book festival. If you went further up Charles Street, you couldn’t have missed Artscape, Baltimore’s huge, outdoor street mulit-day outdoor arts festival in July that goes all the way up to Penn Station. Charles Theatre was the place to be for independent and foreign films. Baltimore has speakeasy’s like Owl Bar that actually existed in the Prohibition Era, not ones that have been made up to look so, and craft beers in the basement of Brewer’s Art.

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Baltimore also introduced me to that great phenomenon of the outdoor farmers’ market. I have never seen anything like the weekly farmers’ market under I-83, where vegetable, meat, doughnut, and crepe stalls unfolded beneath the concrete and seemed to go on forever.

Over the next three years, Baltimore grew on me (like a fungus, as my friend who also moved there from Atlanta would say). I saw a city that was laid-back, artistic, free, expressive, literary, unique, and above all, non-conformist. Most unexpectedly, here was a city after my own heart. Baltimore stitched itself into my soul the same way London did. I felt truly at home.

In other cities, (especially its’ sister), many fun events become over-sized productions, magnetizing hordes of locals and tourists. Cool new restaurants and venues become the place for Hill staffers and political celebrities (you couldn’t pay me to identify them) to see and be seen. These places can be outrageously expensive and unnecessarily chichi. So many times, I feel like DC morphs into a parody of itself.

So it is I found the cable media coverage both disconcerting and sensationalistic. Why do I continue to expect anything more from CNN? Local news at least opted to focus also on community activities and engagement, providing a more accurate picture of location and safety for people traveling, working, and living in the city.

I don’t want to underplay the safety. Crime of all facets is very real. We came home from New York City one Sunday to find our car window broken into, my friend and her husband were once held by a Crips gang member (which prompted them to move out of the city), and a rape took place down the street from us in broad daylight. Even the nice areas were often not so nice. You do live with a certain insecurity, which could be too much to bear.

The recent events have raised important questions regarding inequality, poverty, race, and gentrification. The hardest-hit Baltimore neighborhoods are urban desert landscapes that lack grocery stores, pharmacies, safe housing, and public transportation. Hopkins itself is berated for both not doing more to revitalize East Baltimore, and at the same time, for building that forces people out.

My husband loved Baltimore a great deal more than I did. Even now, if only there were a faster and easier train connecting Baltimore and DC (though that in itself would create a whole other set of issues), we would consider moving back there. For me, it was the place where an exciting new stage of my life began and for that Baltimore will always be in my heart.

Let Me Eat Cake: The Quest for the Perfect Slice

cake
kāk/
noun
noun: cake; plural noun: cakes
  1. an item of soft, sweet food made from a mixture of flour, shortening, eggs, sugar, and other ingredients, baked and often decorated.
    “a carrot cake”

A few days ago, I placed a muffin baking pan sideways in the dishwasher. My husband pointed out that the water was in no way going to splash into the little cups that way. I countered that it was just fine, since I had pre-washed the pan. (let’s just overlook the fact that pre-washing is not recommended, and I probably should have washed it entirely by hand). In any case, I wondered why was he so concerned. After all, it was my baking pan.

I’ve had this pan for about 18 years, and only recently took it back with me from my home in Atlanta. I’m not much of a baker these days.

However, once upon a time in 1996, armed with a Nestle recipe book and the rudimentary beginnings of our world wide web (Geocities pages, anyone?), I took pleasure in creating confectionery delights for my family and me.  Admittedly, some attempts (rich brownies) were more successful than others (sawdust biscotti).

It was my freshman year of high school. My family and I had just returned to Atlanta from a three year residency in Chennai, India. My dad and mom moved to the U.S. in 1975 and 1980 respectively, and my brother and I were born and raised in the U.S. Sometime in the 90s, they felt a burning need to expose us to culture of the motherland. After all, the cold war was over, my new leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica atlas was immediately outdated, and we just saved Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. The world was safe again. Bill Clinton was elected President, and America was in great hands. Why not?

When I started classes upon returning to the the U.S. in 1996, I quickly realized that my friends had moved on and developed new friends and cliques. As a rather painfully shy introvert, I had little chance of making friends any time fast with the old or the new. I was on my own.

So I took up baking. Why baking?

Living in India, one of the things I missed the most was the availability of quality baked goods during that time: cookies, cakes, doughnuts were not really up to standard. You could get mouth-watering adhirasam, soan papdi, mysore pak, and paal kova, everywhere you turned, particularly on that turn that took you to Adyar Grand Sweets and Snacks.

Athirasarn Grand Sweets

However, a red velvet cake would be extremely hard to find. A Baskin Robbins-style ice cream cake – forget about it. Besides, in Chennai weather, it would have melted by the time you got to the car. Additionally our house didn’t have an oven, a luxury item still reserved only for the upper-upper-crust. Most Indian foods did not require an oven, and those which did required a tandoor which was usually only found in restaurants. With frequent power outages in Chennai, ovens would be unreliable unless you had a generator.

If anything, I was deeply nostalgic. I missed the U.S., and I missed my decadent, refined flour, eggy, and buttery cakes and cookies. So, I transformed my loss into a never-ending quest to find a good piece of cake. And good cake was indeed hard to find.

The most obvious and economical place to secure bakery items at the time was at the well-known Adyar Bakery. Around since 1979 with headquarters were in Adyar, the bakery had branches scatted throughout the sprawling city, one just down the road from my house in Thiruvanmiyur.

Adyar Bakery had savory vegetable puffs, an Indowestern style snack item. Yet, the quality of the cakes varied. Sometimes, they tasted passable; other times, they tasted like cardboard. Invariably, they were rock hard by morning – no doubt as a combined result of all-natural ingredients, lack of preservatives, and the dearth of proper temperature control. When the temperature rose over 100 degrees, with no central AC in my house, all bets were off. (Living in Atlanta had prepared me quite well after all.) Nonetheless, I enjoyed the eclairs and greasy donuts here.

So, I moved on.

The next place I investigated was the fledgling bakery chain Hot Breads. Demonstrating a more contemporary look and feel, its stores consisting of modern red and white decor, Hot Breads sold far superior cakes and pastries, including one of my favorites, a black forest cake. You could even get a pig in a blanket here, yes a hot dog wrapped in a croissant. My little brother, five at the time, particularly enjoyed these.

It seems anathema to have pork and beef in proximity, though not right next to, to other meat and vegetarian items. But this was Chennai. It was a conservative place in terms of dress and social mores, perhaps still holding onto some Victorian-era vestiges of British colonial rule, however, it was liberal when it came to religion and culture.

Hot Bread hot-breads1

We lived next door to a strictly vegetarian family. I would walk down to the chicken stall with my grandmother to unwittingly watch a bird killed on the spot for dinner that night, and the fishmonger lady would walk from Besant Nagar beach to sell us pomfret (like perch) and seer (a type of mackerel). Beef and pork was often found on Chinese restaurant menus, to please cosmopolitan palates.

Across the street from us lived a Muslim family that invited us over one time for their young daughter’s birthday celebration. The main dish: a beef biryani, the deliciousness of which I remember to this day.

On to the last bakery.

The best bakeries and pastry chefs were part of five-star hotels. I imagine this may still be the case. Most notably, the Taj. I remember my mom would be in that part of town every now and then, and would bring back cakes from the Taj Bakery. They were spongy and moist, and to date some of the best cakes I’ve ever consumed. Chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, raspberry! They were the Dior of cakes! But they were also outrageously expensive. You basically paid in dollar equivalents for these cakes. So, they remained a once-in-a-while treat.

Overall, I was satisfied with the outcome of my quest. I had found a delicious slice of cake, approximating the taste of home. However, I doubted my parents were going to bankroll it. So, I contented myself with Adyar Bakery and Hot Breads 🙂

Back in the U.S., I think I found baking therapeutic. It allowed me to recapture something I felt like I had lost, even though it was now easily accessible. But sometime in my sophomore year, I got busy with school. I wrote more and more, and I baked less and less.

By the time we moved houses, I stopped baking. And the little muffin pan was a thing of the past. Looking at it the other day though, I think it represented in some way my quest for the perfect slice of cake in India.

In my quest to recapture lost memories, I had created new ones.

For a while, I missed Hot Breads. But would you believe, Hot Breads is in the U.S. now? A few years ago, I saw one in Atlanta.  There are also several in Washington, DC – Gaithersburg, Chantilly and Herndon, too!

In the end, my quest for baked goods came back around in one giant loop — and right into the DC Beltway.