We sat between two large stacks of Italian canned tomatoes—peeled tomatoes from Afeltra, near Naples, and Casa Barone tomatoes from Mount Vesuvius. My mother was on her main course, lasagna primavera, while I ploughed through my tagliatelle with short rib ragù. We were in Eataly in New York City, a cavernous, noisy space packed with Italy’s best produce.

Maa could not get over the display of abundance. Over our 60-minute wait for a dinner table, she roamed the aisles and marvelled at how many types of pasta there were. Sitting across me now, she said: “It was not like this when we travelled. In our time, we only ate what we recognized, and what was not too expensive. And we ate because we had to, not like you people do—‘for the experience’."

This was my mother, who was on her maiden trip to the US, a place trapped in her imagination for over 40 years. In 2004, I had left for the US in the manner most accessible to middle-class Indian youngsters—higher education. My departure had made America real to my mother; her own flesh and blood would be there. Before I left, she had asked me, “You will take me there one day, right?" I couldn’t because I didn’t stay on in the US. But I remembered that I had promised her.

So this April, 12 years after my aborted American dream, I was back in the US. My mother walked out of an aeroplane and into the Philadelphia arrivals hall, where I welcomed her into the land of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. But right on the second day, I was troubled by thoughts of the impending month of travel with her—because of what happened at lunch.

I had walked her down to Philadelphia’s popular food truck area, an American trend I thought Maa would enjoy. We walked past crêpe trucks, Brazilian, Greek, Korean, Mexican, American trucks. Ultimately, she bought fish and rice from a curry truck and started speaking to the Bangladeshi owner in Bengali. I was livid. “Seriously? After all these wild trucks, you chose fish and rice? Something you ate right before you got on to the flight? Unbelievable." I stomped off to find my non-curry lunch. “Food is going to be a problem for mom <angry emoji>," I texted my husband.

*****

Even before my mother’s arrival, I had been agonizing over things to do with her. I wasn’t sure our ideas of urban exploration would match. Would a street art walk interest her? Should I take her to The Metropolitan Museum of Art? Would she like to go to a jazz bar or to the farmers’ market? I feared that she would want to do touristy things that I would smirk at.

It would be a true test of our love. The month would be a collision of two different ideas of travel spanning 40 years.

*****

And so we came to this conversation about food and travel at Eataly. We had just finished watching a Broadway show, which is one thing I knew Maa would love, since she is a musician and a lover of drama, both on stage and in life.

“When we were children and we went on vacations, often we carried even our own stove and pressure cooker, and made our own food. Why spend more money and risk eating strange food when we know what we like to eat?" she said, sniffing at the ricotta on her pasta.

“I don’t understand cheese. I dislike most cheeses. But this ricotta is nice," she added.

“Yes, it is the gateway drug to the planet of cheese. You will never leave," I responded.

Holidays in her time, as she explained it, were routine. Often tirth yatras, pilgrimages, doubling as vacations. “We knew that it would mean packing everything in a giant ‘hold-all’, getting on a train, seeing some sights, most probably temples, getting on a train again and coming back. It is only now, because of your sister and you, that I am learning this new type of travelling."

It was true. At our prodding, my mother had come to accept that travel could mean something more than monuments.

“My mother always had to cook," Maa continued, “even on holidays. She was always angry. I don’t blame her. Though I remember she took all her blue saris to wear on the beach. I thought that was very romantic."

For my father, vacations were a chore, an obligation to his family. Every year, we would be dragged to hot, sweaty Calcutta, as the city was called, in the desultory summer months and be forced to mingle with our cousins. My sister and I have detested that city since—till a recent visit cleansed some of those traumatic memories. In some years, we got to participate in the annual herd migration of north India—to the hill stations of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Even those involved a walk on the mall or short cab rides to nearby “valley views" and “sunset points".

Once, in Nainital, my parents took us up a narrow alley to a “dada-boudi" hotel for dinner. Dada-boudi hotel is a generic name for a small-time restaurant that would cook homely Bengali meals by a dada (brother) and his wife, the boudi. My sister and I looked at each other over a plate of watery mooshoor dal and aloo posto and commiserated at what a comic cliché we were. We had wanted to go to Nainital’s famed Sakley’s Restaurant & Pastry Shop. Passing it several times earlier in the day, we were enamoured of the café’s wood and glass windows, where pretty people sat with cups of hot chocolate. We had hoped some of that sophistication of the affluent would rub off on us, even if just for the time it took to drink a cup. Instead, we went to the hotel that left us with turmeric-stained fingernails and fish breath.

*****

2004, the year I left for the US, was also the year my family and I went on our last vacation to Singapore and Malaysia. By then, my sister and I were old enough to make our voices heard on the choice of what to do in a city. The combined threat of two sulking children was more than enough to change the itinerary. My father wanted to go to a modern abomination—a hill resort (the Genting Highlands, complete with a shopping mall, an amusement park and a casino). It was a model of fun that I despised. Instead, we forced him to re-route to Crab Island, a boat ride to an old fishing village. Our father brooded all day and asked us if we had seen any “crabs".

It was the last time the four of us went anywhere.

*****

“When are we going to Times Square?" asked Maa.

Times Square. Photo: iStockphoto
Times Square. Photo: iStockphoto

One overcast evening, walking down Broadway, I snuck Times Square on Maa. She stopped suddenly. “Oh! Times Square."

“Yes, this is it. You have seen it a thousand times in movies," I said.

“Yes, exactly. It is exactly like that," she said with a gleeful pirouette.

I realized that Maa, and most of her generation, did not travel to be surprised; they wanted to be reassured. They wanted to ossify the idea of the place they already had. Travel was not about assimilation with the local environment, food, culture and people. They stuck out and they didn’t mind it. They weren’t there to see the place from a local’s point of view—a contemporary construct. Maa probably would have been the happiest in a mass tour bus, a moving glass cocoon just gliding by the sights and lights without having to interact. It wasn’t necessarily meant to be an exchange. She celebrated the differences.

It is the opposite of what I, and several of my peers, seek when we travel—the local, the authentic. We mock the hordes that shop at souvenir kiosks and eat at restaurants at tourist spots. We download apps such as “Spotted by Locals" and pride ourselves on finding the last authentic dumpling. For us, travel is to inhabit the skin of a local. But it is not. We are fools too. Authenticity is terrifyingly malleable. For my mom, it was a New York City Police Department car and a doughnut, for me it was graffiti; for an actual New Yorker it is probably the month’s rent.

A police department car at Times Square, New York. Photo: iStockphoto
A police department car at Times Square, New York. Photo: iStockphoto

“Orrey baba, too many rules here," she said, sitting down really close to a woman at the Philadelphia station who scurried to the other end of the bench. My mother is a talker. She loves chatting up people. Against her nature, she adapted. One evening on the subway, I sat opposite her and noticed her scanning the crowd. I knew she was itching to strike up a conversation with the woman next to her, who had a tiny dog in her purse. But she steeled herself, clasped her hands and stared hard at a stain on the roof of the car. I felt a pang of regret. I should have let her be herself. She might have had better stories to tell.

*****

The Catskill mountains, in New York
The Catskill mountains, in New York

During the first week in the US, she would often grab my arm and say, “See Mimi, Starbucks." “Body Shop." “Forever 21." I would get annoyed, “Why are you pointing out things that are there in India?" After that she would just utter the names to herself, under her breath. It must have been exotic for her—to see, for the first time, these shops in their own habitat, much like spotting a giraffe in the Serengeti (the Tanzanian national park).

*****

“Hyan re, take a picture of me," said Maa, standing in front of the bulging crowd at the White House. She doesn’t take selfies because her arms are short.

“Oh my God! Why? Why do you always want a photo of yourself in front of things? Is it not enough to take a picture of the thing itself?" I said uncharitably.

“Because I want a photo of myself," she said.

“Why?"

“Because I am here. In the US. In front of the White House."

“So take a picture of the building."

“But I want to remember that I was here too."

“Memories aren’t enough? You won’t remember that you were here?"

“Eto khenkh-khenkh korchheesh keno?" she grumbled in return, calling out my bad humour and petty harangues.

Later, I felt sorry about my “khenkh-khenkh", my snapping and nagging. I was trying to impose my idea of an ideal tourist on my mother. It was unfair and arrogant. I realized that for her photography was a deeply personal exercise, unlike my social-media centric, transient one. “We are travelling to so many places so fast. I will have to go home and look at these photos," Maa said. It was, I think, her way of finding a narrative through her journey. She wasn’t one to post photos anywhere. It was just for her; her story.

I didn’t remember the last time I had revisited the photos on my computer or on Facebook. It was as if they had existed for a moment, only to evaporate in the casual scroll of a thumb.

From then on, I took photos of her everywhere.

*****

Picking our way through the fast-moving hordes on NYC sidewalks, I would lead the way. Maa was terrified of losing sight of me. Her aching knees meant she walked very slowly, but she never lost spirit. She would take a long time to catch up. I would wait and watch her concentrate fiercely on me, thumbs hooked tightly under the straps of her backpack. She would find me and say, “Your duckling is here." This trip was the first time I really felt my mother’s advancing age. In a city-focused holiday, it is hard to avoid walking. We had to look for benches for rest, elevator-equipped subway stations and quieter routes. Between 2004 and now, a lot had changed—bodies had weakened, but the will had strengthened.

*****

I should probably not have worried about what Maa would like to do in the US. She hardly ever made her opinion known. Her protests are mild and friendly, and often followed by an apology. She is from the generation where women are bullied by their parents before marriage, by their husbands and gender roles after marriage, and then by their children and a world that has transformed too fast.

Sitting at a farmers’ market in Philadelphia eating shrimp and grits, she said: “All this is so new for me. These markets. We would just call them kisaan haat. Ha ha." She recounted how much her children had changed the way she travels over the years. “Now, I have a backpack. I travel without a suitcase, unimaginable. I pack light. I have seen places I would never have. I have even hitch-hiked on a truck. And I might even like cheese. Thank you."

I had put her through so many wildly unfamiliar experiences over the past month. I made her take her first international flight by herself (something she was terrified of), I made her figure out the airport Wi-Fi on her phone, I had sent her walking into a new city by herself and taken her hiking through snow in upstate New York. But I should have known that she would be fine because when I was a girl, it was her hand on my back that gently pushed me out into the world every time I left home.

When I was 20, my mother and I had struck a deal. She would allow me to go on a hiking trip to Ladakh by myself, and in return I would quit a ridiculous, untenable marriage that I had committed to and rein in my cavalier attitude towards my future. She threw in my 15-year-old sister into the completely unplanned holiday. Maybe she believed in the strength of numbers or hoped that my sister’s practical nature would control my recklessness. My mother’s friends were appalled. “Surely you cannot let two young girls leave," they had cried.

To them, she had said, “They will be fine."

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