By Arjan Batth
A jalebi, with a name as eccentric as its appearance, is made by a halwai (or a confectionery maker) with skillful etchings of concentric circular shapes of a paste of flour in hot bubbling ghee like a discerning painter with a brush. Oil simmers in unison with Lata Mangeshkar’s filmi voice, price bargaining, and noisy traffic — a distinctly South Asian symphony. The jalebi becomes fully congealed, eventually submerged in syrup and infused with its sweetened spirit. This delicate confection is then put in a basket on the side of a narrow street or in the midst of a chaotic bazaar, appearing as a platter of petite suns, seducing the occasional child like a syrupy siren. There are other mithai or sweets among it — barfis, ladoos, gulab jamun and more besan (gram flour) progenies. But the jalebi, like me, is markedly different from the rest. While it may be quite odd to describe oneself as a confection, I have inevitably come to the realization that I am, quite indubitably, a jalebi.
I am a jalebi not because I am saccharine, nor because of my lingering unpalatable aftertaste, but rather, because I am different, with my intricately eccentric swirls and peculiar oddities — a disorderly collection of twists that spiral infinitely into oblivion. I remain a vibrant enigma that is overtly incongruous, out of place in the world around me, a spectacle that can’t quite be made sense of. Seeing myself as a jalebi seemed the only way to make sense of the various oddities I have exhibited from a young age. It finally offered an explanation for my differences which seemed to have no tangible cause or explicable origin. And while it was a peculiar explanation, it was an explanation nonetheless, one that temporarily ended a search for an answer and brought with it a certain equanimity. Although I may not be appealing in the way a jalebi is, I am indeed the confection — a twisted, swirly, and overly orange one.
It was self-evident from a young age that I was not like most others. It was this feeling of being different that later blossomed into a profound estrangement. Most people are products of their environment and are thus well adapted to their surroundings. However, I seem to be the product of some other, indefinable forces. I feel irrelevant, always having the urge to be somewhere else, where others are more similar to me in a place that would make me feel a little more relevant. I am under the impression that I was born into the wrong life, in the wrong circumstances or context, the subject of a divine blunder and ridiculed by probability. I should be this rather than that. There rather than here. I am frustrated by the immutability of it all, the permanence of the things you are born into — religion, culture, language, and time. While it may seem futile to be frustrated by such things, they didn’t seem to fit in with who I was.
Inevitably, I remain pierced by loneliness. It is a paradoxical loneliness, not one due to physical isolation, but one borne out of my ability to see the world differently than most and my inability to see the world conventionally. One of the most distressing things that I felt knew, or at least believed I knew, that there were others like me, but just that they weren’t where I was, as if they were deliberately staying hidden away from me. While I have had some relationships before, most lack the intimacy and closeness that comes with genuine friendship. Compared to others, my idiosyncrasies and differences seemed magnified to a microscopic level, making me feel that there was something wrong with me clinically. This estrangement created an opaque silence within me, when I could no longer make sense of what was happening around me. I felt completely different, the discomfort and incongruity in the air around me, almost seemingly tangible and graspable, as thick and viscous as sea water. It is this certain “off” feeling, a discomfort, a malaise of some sort, a feeling of deep irrelevance, that I often felt.
My condition seems to be mirrored by the big jalebi in the sky, the Sun, the suraj, who like me, exhibits much jalebi-ness. The Sun’s interstellar solitude reminds me of my own alienation. It is the only star of its kind in the solar system; the next nearest star is 4.25 light years (24.9 trillion miles) away. And quite significantly, both of us are seemingly encumbered by the weight of the universe.
While I may seem outwardly peaceful because of my superficial reticence, I actually remain quiet because of the turmoil within me. I am pensive while my thoughts attempt to make sense of the confusing world around me. My mind is a spiraling jalebi that tightens and tightens, swirls and swirls, twirls and twirls into neurotic rumination. I often feel disordered, like a faulty machine. I am anxious and apprehensive about some things, fastidious about minor aberrations, and often despondent.
Some days, everything seems to be tinged in a certain sadness. A certain understood, yet unspoken hopeless injustice. My melancholy springs from a fusillade of realisations about the world. Being exposed to the world’s harshness and its lack of hope and reason, my reality seems to have a propensity, an innate tendency, to be brutal. I anachronistically experienced the Romantic ennui that French teenagers felt in the 19th century, trying to find meaning in our capitalistic, success driven world. Like Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I am a ghost of sorts, a specter of vicarious and passive living. But beyond my nihilism, I am disturbed by the unfathomability of concepts that govern our universe: the concept of time, the size of the universe, death, the sun’s brightness, human consciousness. But as a single living organism, the universe has no obligation to make sense to me and holds no obligation of any other kind.
I am also a jalebi because of my South Asian background. Even though I have grown up thousands of miles away from India, it infuses itself into my life, an every day, colouring of a distinct shade of Indianness. It is in the food I swallow. The thoughts I think. The genes that materialize my body. Yet, there is a disconnect to “my homeland” not only due to the seemingly interminable physical distance, but because I have spent my entire life in the West. As such, I perceive India and the world through a unique lens. I see it as a Westerner, yet also as an Indian, making sense of the world through a complicated, paradoxical mosaics.
The boundaries of a culture are always delineated by an “us” and “them”. But I struggle to define the “us” and the “them”. In India, the borders between ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity all simultaneously converge and diverge. In the modern post-colonial era with the ancient civilization partitioned and shattered, the definition of Indian is constantly questioned and changing. As technically a minority in India’s extremely diverse cultural landscape, I feel like a decimal point, a fraction not a whole, in a country with over a billion people. And in the US, I am not just American, but an Indian American — another “doctor” trying to uphold the coveted model minority status.
I have long felt like an outsider, a conspicuous jalebi, in both places, perpetually stateless and displaced, like a refugee devoid of a nationality. As I don’t know what to think of my culture, I don’t know what to think of myself. There is no dictionary that contains my name as a word entry. No particular space to define me or explain who I am. It is absent. Unwritten. Blank. And so, in an attempt to define the indefinable, I define myself as a jalebi.
Rather than ponder upon my loneliness, I muse on the big jalebi in the sky, my constant companion. I try to find the sun in other things. The suraj meets me. Sometimes in the grass. In a busy city. Or near the ocean. On a windy day. Or on a walk. In my mind. In my dreams. Wherever really — sometimes among the surajmukhis (sunflowers)thatsprout out of the ground, with the grimming expression of the sun. The suraj is in the juicy, citrus fruits hanging off verdant trees. And of course, the sun is in every jalebi. I realize that because of the sun, all colours exist. Because of the sun, I am able to see. And while the sun does illuminate a brutal world, there are some things that my eyes can find worth looking at. I try not to think of the sadness that everything is tinged with, but rather the colours of our world. People wear sunglasses to dim the radiance of the sun, but I fully embrace its blinding light — I find solace in the sol. I sit there, a petite sun myself in the light of a large sun, wistfully wondering.
And while I may feel quite alone right now, I think that other jalebis in other places are waiting for me. Somewhere on this spinning planet. Under the radiance of the big jalebi in the sky. Somewhere in this jalebi-shaped galaxy.
Arjan Batth is a student from California. He has recently written a children’s book, ‘Dear Humans’, that tackles the issue of climate change. As a young South Asian-American, he is determined to represent Asians more in the writing field and has a passion for writing and literature. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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