The smell of home-cooked Indian food, actually made in an Indian kitchen. Itâ€™s something that has to be experienced. Itâ€™s more than just a smell; itâ€™s a feeling, an emotion, a sense of comfort and warmth.
My family sits around the dinner table, and not just my â€œfamilyâ€ family, but cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. We are eating after being teased with the smell for hours.
My father laughs as his sisters recount a mischievous tale from his childhood, one he insists contains many exaggerations.
According to my two aunts, my dad loved to be involved as a child with the latest gossip. So one day while his two sisters were trading stories, my dad snuck into the room, pretending to read a newspaper while my aunts gossiped. The only problem? The newspaper was upside down â€“ allegedly.
My dad laughs off the claim, insisting that not only could he read, but that he didnâ€™t care much about the nonsense his sisters discussed.
We were wrapping up a trip back home. It was December 2008. With wedding ceremonies filling up our next three days, the nightâ€™s dinner was our last chance to relax with family.
It had been another great trip. We arrived just one month after terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and our initial hesitation evaporated quickly after spending time with our family. I caught a Jim Carrey movie with my cousins, rekindled old friendships and reunited with distant relatives who last saw me as â€œa little boy with chubby cheeks.â€
I missed out on most of the memories formed in my hometown because my family emigrated to Florida in 1996.
I visit India every now and then with my family, with the trips becoming fewer and farther between. I tend to live vicariously through the memories of those around me, and try my best to obtain a feel for my hometown whenever I return.
After years of missing out on weddings, births and even the passing of my fatherâ€™s mom, my family did not want to miss out on another occasion.
Bombay always brings out the best in my family. From restaurant hopping to shopping to vacations-within-vacations, we bond fastest back home in Mumbai.
We make sure to return to spots my parents loved during their childhood, eating our favorite meals (believe me when I say eating consists of 90% of our time in Bombay), and reuniting with people who remember me as a toddler with a naughty disposition to go with the chubby cheeks.
For our first meal that December, we walked around the corner to a tiny restaurant behind our apartment to grab sizzlers. The waiters brought our food on steaming hot plates, with a white, aromatic smoke teasing our senses before we dug in. My momâ€™s cousins insisted on taking us out to dinner, competing with one another in the process.
The marriage we attended made the trip a little different. Seeing someone I knew in India at a young age transform from a college student to a married man prompted me to consider the path of my life. I was in high school, at an age when I could grasp the things around me in India. I thought about how different my life would have been growing up at home, where my parents met, surrounded by most of my extended family.
I could not complain about my life in Florida. I had amazing friends and school was going great. The year before, I had discovered my greatest passion when my schoolâ€™s journalism teacher gave me a sports column in the school newspaper. My parents were happy as well, with my father continuing his job at Citibank and my mom opening up her own small business designing websites.
Growing up, I fell in love with playing sports. I studied hard. I made the volleyball team in both middle school and high school. I challenged myself in class so that the education I received could lead me to bigger and better things. I made friendships easily.
I grew especially fond of sports and writing.
I followed my Miami sports teams religiously. Â My weekly attitude during football season depended on a Dolphinsâ€™ victory.
From the time I won an award in seventh grade for a literary newspaper project, I worked on my writing, crafting short stories, and on my dreaming, of authoring a novel.
Back at the dinner table in Mumbai, the night began to wind down slowly. My family would be returning to Florida in about two days, making the dinner one of the last get-togethers.
When that thought hit me, my feelings changed. From the satisfaction of the meal to the happiness of being with people I rarely spend time with, I began to reflect on how much I missed in Mumbai.
At some point, my father and I sat across from each other, just the two of us, with the rest of the family talking amongst themselves. I asked my father to tell me more about his life in India, before he decided to live an immigrant life in America.
He told me about his love for school and how he would play with friends growing up. He told me stories about places weâ€™d visited during the trip, and different memories from his childhood there.
My father recalled a story about a time he skipped school by hiding in a cupboard in the lobby of his building, and the lashing he received from his mother as a result. He told me about the cigarette vendor he bought cigarettes from every time he needed them – the vendor who still recognizes him to this day.
My father also threw in token complaints about the harsh weather, over-crowdedness, and growing pollution in Bombay. But it was clear from the glint in his eye how much he loves the city he grew up in.
He talked about taking the train to work, about how people would sometimes ride on top of the train to avoid paying a fare. He described riding the bus, and people who would run alongside it as the bus left a stop, hoping to jump into the door at the last possible second.
My motherâ€™s own interjections made me realize how much of home Bombay remains for each of my parents.
And I got sad, thinking about all the experiences I missed out on, thinking about how no matter how much I want Bombay to be my home, that part of me shrinks with each passing day.
â€œWhyâ€™d you move dad?â€ I asked, ready to tell him I almost wish we stayed.
â€œIt was for you guys,â€ he said, gesturing toward my brother.
Now, studying at the Medill School of Journalism, keeping in touch with my childhood friends and traveling across the United States just to cover sports for The Daily Northwestern, I realize exactly what he meant.