Wherever the Limdi Grows: Growing Up Gujarati in Southern California
I deliberately and obstinately use the word ‘limdi’ and not the term ‘curry leaf’ because the word ‘curry’ has always bothered me.
The dreamer, in this case, my father: In the early ’70s, Dad faced a life altering crossroads in the decision tree of his life—whether to make the UK or the US his new home. The US policy of family reunification (now rebranded ‘chain migration’) would allow him to sponsor not just his parents and wife, but also all of his adult siblings, while the UK policy at the time would exclude them.He ultimately picked the country whose policies reflected the importance of extended family, not just the nuclear one. Family reunification synced with our cultural values, where a cousin is like a sister or a brother, and aunts and uncles like second parents. He chose America, and chose a motel.
With Dad and Mom as our clan’s anchors, it started with the single seed of a small motel in Southern California. As the decades unfurled, with visas processed and green cards granted, siblings and their spouses sponsored their extended families and the instrument for settlement was the motel. My parents have spent the last half a century in this country and at last count, there are about 150 American citizens here directly because of my parents. Since my parents arrived in the USA, half of all motels in the US have become Indian owned, the majority of those by Gujaratis.
We grew up as motel kids, the parking lot our playground. Driftwood Motel, Malta Motel, Town and Country Motel, Rancho, Family, Surf, Belmont Shore, Compass (which we pronounced “Come-paas” only to realize as adults that our parents mispronounced it the whole time), Sun ’N Sands, La Vista, Hyde Park, Willow Tree. Our home was our place of business: busy Friday nights with 2 a.m. jaunts to the sidewalk to light the ‘No’ of the No Vacancy Sign; spreading fresh white sheets on queen beds while watching Saturday morning cartoons; perfecting the art of sounding professional with the pleasant pitched polish of, “Beach Comfort Motel, may I help you?” We developed the craft of casing a car as it pulled into the lot, charging fifty-five plus tax for the night when it was a shiny Chevy Camaro instead of thirty-five plus tax for the banged up Hyundai Excel. Motel kids know the heater isn’t broken but just needs a pilot relight. We know where the circuit breakers are and how to work a snake to unclog a drain, and we roll our eyes because you shouldn’t have dumped the coffee grounds there in the first place.
By our teens we realize it’s best that we man the customer window when the crew cut Camp Pendleton marine tries to finagle a room for twenty bucks. When refused, he is less likely to scream “Paki” at us than at our sari-clad Moms or our thick-accented Dads. So we promote ourselves to work front desk and as soon as we hear the first notes of the bell, we run to the window to be the more benign, less offensive version of the immigrant. Our American-born and -bred selves always nod graciously at the compliments customers shower upon us about how good our English is.
My parents encouraged us to wear our differences proudly and set the example. But many of their generation sought a more harmoniously antiseptic encounter with the average customer. Not all Auntys and Uncles were made of the same flint and steel core as my pioneer parents. As I got older, I forgave them, but as a kid I was ashamed of their shame. They replaced their lungis with sweatpants and their saris with slacks and made sure there was a shut door between the office and the adjacent living room. They also did their utmost to seal away the unruly wafts of limdi with grated ginger and mustard seed sizzling in canola oil. Sameers became Sams, Devangs became Daves, and Nikhils, Nicks. Motel owners draped American flags prominently, wishful that the stars and stripes would provide the necessary armor against a rock through the plate glass window, or worse. Neutral look, neutral smell, neutral customer encounter.
Gujarati food without limdi is incomplete—it just doesn’t taste like home.
In spite of the voluntary erasure of the most external markers of our culture, always, always, there is still a telltale sign to the insider eye. Somewhere, if you scour carefully, in the strip of dirt between the parking lot pavement and the swimming pool gate, or in the slice of soil adjacent to the rose bushes, or in the sun drenched spot next to the concrete curb of the office window, a limdi lurks. Its tender branches rustle with new shiny green leaves, lovingly tended to by an Aunty who knows better than to pluck the limdi until the plant truly takes in the soil.
And so we play the spot-the-limdi game. Because within the limdi lies the story: the story of who you are and where you come from, the story of tiny seeds passed from hand to hand, the story of home, of loss, of longing, of transplant, of circumscribing a small piece of earth and claiming it as yours. And if you are lucky, your limdi grows from seed to sapling, from sapling to bush, from bush to tree. And it takes root, spreads, and thrives—just like you and yours.