In less than a month, I’ll be in India. I never know whether to say “I’m going to India” or “I’m going back to India.” As a first-gen, my accent, clothing, and privilege of being able to have fun are American. But my name, skintone, and idiosyncratic phrases like “close the light” instead of “turn off the light” are from the other side of the world. But I’ve spent so many summers, winters, and once, an entire school year there, that India is as familiar a place to me as America is. I take ownership over India the way I do of America, even though I’m not sure I’m always allowed to. And to say I’m going back there implies that it is my home, even though it is not. Because I am Indian, but I am also not.
The last time I visited India was four years ago. It was Halloween, a holiday driven by the premise that it’s socially acceptable to be something you are not. With the right costume, you can scare or amuse people, or just confuse them.
Halloween is once a year in America, but when I’m in India, it’s everyday. During my last visit, I dressed up as an ambitious but traditional Indian girl. In costume, I worked at a flashy tech company climbing the ranks of marketing while also making time for friends and travel and the arts and exercise. In costume, I knew all the latest and classic Bollywood songs and watched movies without subtitles. In costume, I did not listen to rap music. Instead I wore a lot of dresses and never any sleeveless shirts even though it was blazing hot, because looking modest is the key to this costume, along with a small piece of gold jewelry and maybe a nose piercing (which I tried to include in my costume but mine closed years ago).
In costume I did not date, and did not ever date. I instead had equally ambitious and traditional girl friends. Through these friends or through work, I expected to meet the guy that I would marry and it would happen quickly, with less dating and more planning to get our parents to meet. Until then, I stayed in my lane, not being distracted by boys nor attending parties, and definitely not going on the apps. That wouldn’t be a convincing costume.
Being in India is like being at a constant Halloween party. My goal, set by the country’s customs and competitive social mores, is to amuse people’s ideas of me. What I can’t convince them of through my American accent, I am tasked with doing so through forced assimilation. And in a country of 1.3 billion people, 122 languages, 9 official religions, and 43 types of bread, it’s not an easy task.
But then again, it wasn’t an easy task for my parents to leave this country to go to one where millions of people didn’t look like them; the Southern drawled English of Louisiana didn’t sound like them; the closest temple to practice their religion was over an hour away; and the only type of affordable bread wasn’t nearly as wonderful as it claimed to be. I only need to be in costume for a couple of weeks, but they are in costume for the rest of their lives.
I made this tart to represent Halloween, India, and my relationship with the two. Upon appearance, it looks like a straightforward pumpkin pie, very on-trend for this time of year and what types of desserts we expect, or rather, believe we should expect. It’s got elements of a classic pumpkin pie as well—warm spices and a flaky crust. But when you dig in with your fork, you get something different. You taste the familiar fall aromas and the silky filling, but not from pumpkin. The truth behind this orange costumed tart is mango, bursting onto the scene with its tropical summer vibes.
I love this tart because you can’t hold any expectations towards it until you get to know it, which is hopefully what I can show friends and family in India this time around when I visit. What you see is not what you get, and that’s okay, because what you get ends up being even better.