I thought 2020 was going to be one of the best years of my life. It started slowly, with bits of good things. A life that I was perfectly content with, a way I hadn't felt in a long time. Living in New Haven, Connecticut, surrounded by friends and coworkers. My life involved waking up around 6.40 and starting my day by going to the gym with my friend. Then, getting home, changing, and walking the 7-minute distance to work, entering the office, opening the fridge, and taking out my carton of oat milk. Oat milk is something I discovered earlier last year — it's a dairy substitute, and it's delicious. Both lactose-intolerant friendly, and a perfectly easy and filling breakfast.
Perfectly easy and filling is how I'd describe my New Haven life as well. In February, I went home for my grandmother's birthday. Seeing my family is always nice, but another incredible bonus is the food at Dhaka. From beef bhuna to dal chochori, all with a warm plate of rice, and a good teaspoon full of ghee, there wasn't a single meal at home I didn't enjoy. On the 28th of February, I heard back from my first graduate school application. I'd got in! This was a relief because I truly did not have any faith in my abilities and it was a highly great reassurance to know that a future in writing wasn't all in my head.
Of course, there is something to say about me trying to find my worth through the approval of academia, but that's for another time.
When I got back to New Haven, I struggled to sleep. At first it was jet lag, but then it was the news that my best friend at work — my gym buddy, and the person who had introduced me to my favorite Korean pop group — was leaving our job. I spent a whole week divided between crying all night and squeezing as much time in with her as I could. It's funny thinking about it now, because at the time I thought I still had 3 months with her left. Since I couldn't sleep too well, I bought a jar of melatonin, which supposedly helps you calm down and fall asleep.
The first week of March wasn't bad. On the 7th, I remember going to a wrestling show with my friends. This is easily one of the most exciting parts of my life, because I accidentally somehow befriended my favorite wrestler last year. My friends and I got to sit ringside, and we even went backstage. Even then — the 7th of March, 6 days away from when the office would close with no end in sight — I felt like 2020 was continuing to be the best year of my life.
Then, it happened.
Suddenly, there really was no hope. Nothing but news of illness, death, and despair.
I moved to Boston to stay with my best friend, because there was no way I would survive quarantine alone. When the social distancing protocols were set, my grandmother started calling me every day at 9pm, Eastern Standard Time. She's not very good at technology, her Messenger account is very new. But even if it's 1/8th of her forehead, the ceiling fan with her voice playing in the background, or an overly zoomed in image of the mole under her right eye, I appreciate hearing her voice, seeing her face.
I've always been told that I have my grandmother's memory — I don't forget dates, times, places. The important ones, but also the little ones. My good memory is how our family ties us together, and funnily enough, the memory of my grandmother is what's kept me going.
Over the time we've had to socially distance, I've had about five panic attacks. All while I've woken up suddenly. A couple of times, I swallowed too much air and struggled to breathe — the first time at 12 am, after I'd been asleep for half an hour, the second time at 6 am, when I woke up, an irrational feeling of despair stuck in my body, but unable to gasp for air. The most recent time, I woke up at 3.35, and the back of my head felt like the way my foot felt earlier that day at the local pond — asleep, numb, feeling like there was a sudden lack of blood circulation. All of the symptoms ended up pointing to anxiety on Google.
I made an appointment with a psychiatrist and received a prescription for anxiety medication.
But before the medication arrived, each of these momentary feelings of "yes, it's all about to end," my routine exercise involved thinking back to my childhood, to my fondest memories. My grandmother having lunch ready after I've returned from school, my grandmother running after five-year-old-me as I try to skip showering because Pokémon is on TV, my grandmother helping me figure things out when my mother is away on a work trip the first time I get my period. I try to relive them in case that this time it's actually a heart attack and not an anxious breakdown. I've also read somewhere that during anxiety attacks you have to think about what makes you feel the most comfortable, the most at peace. A comforting memory, something that can help you relax.
But I also played these tapes of our time together in my head so that I didn't forget them. In case there's something really wrong with me, the last thing I want is to remember is my grandmother.
The last thing I want to forget is my grandmother.
Shrimp Biryani and Homemade Roshmalai
I have a strange relationship with cooking. I never grew up doing it, even though I was curious. At 10, I made the microwave at home nearly explode attempting a lemon cake. Yes, in a microwave. I stopped trying to do anything like that since. But as I moved to US, and I started missing home food more and more, I realized that cooking was a skill I needed to pick up.
The funny thing is that there was so much of it already ingrained in me. Like my mother and aunts and grandmother, I never use exact measurements when making a chicken curry or aloo bhaji. I'll use different amounts based on taste and memory. It's during times of making a childhood dish that I feel extremely connected to my roots. Every bite brings back a time from my childhood, whether it's spending Eid-ul-Azhas hiding away from the screams of cows, or on trips to Cox's Bazar, trying 40 different types of mashed vegetable dishes.
Quarantine eid didn't really feel like Eid. But since I had the time, and I have been cooking, I wanted to try a new recipe. I didn't want to venture out to find the perfect cut of beef for tehari, or go to a butcher to seek out mutton for kachchi biryani so I found a shrimp biryani recipe on YouTube. On the morning of Eid, my mum asked if I was planning a sweet dish as well. So, I looked up a recipe for roshmalai.
Even a couple months prior, in my New Haven apartment with roommates I never got to know, I wouldn't have taken these risks. But in quarantine, I've felt like I don't have a lot to lose. I've wanted to always try and keep doing the things that bring me the most joy. And in learning new things — from wrapping the sweets in cheesecloth to adding bay leaves, cloves, cardamoms and garlic paste into a big pot — I brought back feelings highly familiar to me.
There's a lot of hopelessness in the air. Alongside the pandemic, the United States is currently witnessing a very powerful movement in the fight for racial justice. While a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic predator lives in the White House, the streets of America are filled with young protestors, hoping to catch the attention of the government to defund the poilice and bring an end to racially-motivated police brutality.
I attended two demonstrations — one from a car, and one vigil in honor of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black paramedic who was shot in her own home by police who had barged in in search of a different man who had already been in custody. This quarantine has brought a lot of hopelessness — but one of those hopeless moments completely consumed by sorrow and somehow, light was when in that vigil, we sang happy birthday to Breonna. And even though she's no longer on this earth, her death is sparking important conversations.
Conversations that have made me think of race relations, of how people are treated differently if they are different. Even in Bangladesh, where I wasn't taught about the different races or religions that exist in our country growing up. In the midst of the confusion and pain, I turned once more, to food. We looked up a recipe for aloo porota, something I often have for breakfast at home, a dish that my mother freezes and packs for me when I fly to the States.
Eating the fresh aloo porota, with ghee and daal, helped ground me. I'm still thinking a lot about race both east and in the west, and i'm unsure of how I fit into all of this.
I'm unsure of how I fit into the world, what I'm currently doing and what I might be achieving in the future. I've passed my father's birthday, mother's day, and now father's day in quarantine. There are no flights to Bangladesh available right now. Every time I go visit my family I wonder if it's the last time I'll see my grandmother. Both of my parents were sick while I was in quarantine and there was nothing I could do about it. Right now everything is messy, and I can feel myself being dehydrated, getting panic attacks, or simply breaking down for no reason. I've been unproductive, lazy, depressed. I forget to shower, don't even realize when I'm crying.
But I know this isn't permanent. If quarantine has taught me anything, it's not to take the best things in life for granted.
I hope someday I can properly leave the house again. Go see the Korean pop group on tour. Fly to a different city to watch wrestling. Go to a picnic and hug my friends.
I hope someday, I can go home and see my family again. Have my mum's beef bhuna.
When this ends, I know I'll live life to the fullest.
Padya Paramita is a graduate from Wellesley College and currently working as Digital Content Specialist at in Genius Prep, USA.