1. O plantain, when did my feelings for you begin? I, age six or seven, chubby-cheeked, peering into amma’s pantry, looking for love in the basmati rice and mustard seeds? Did I mistake you for your yellower cousin, the common banana? Did I peel your green skin and bite your flesh, only to spit you out because raw, you are tough and tasteless?
Still, there was something—a spark. Are you fruit or vegetable, I wondered?
Decades later, you are still mysterious to me. And a bit of that in any relationship can only be good.
2. Another draw: how you make every part of yourself useful. That’s the rule when you leave home for “better opportunities,” right?
Take us, leaving India for Canada. In our new land, we overflowed the days’ hours: my appa working overtime, always missing dinner. Every evening, amma leaving him a plate. Every morning, it was untouched. Those were the nights he started eating whiskey.
Still, amma cooked constantly, trying to make up for all that was missing here: her parents, you, fresh green chilies. Instead of spiced plantain fry and dosas, she made mounds of rice and potatoes, rice and potatoes, over-salted, more than we could possibly eat. And me? I waitressed, dollar-store-cashiered, studied—studied most of all, trying to cram my way into those better opportunities.
At night, after every part of us was used and re-used, we slept hard. We did not dream; we forgot there could be more to us.
But you, native to Asia, brought to America and elsewhere by the colonizers, didn’t choose to leave. Still, everywhere, you are used thoroughly: your flowers texturizing curry, your epidermis feeding cattle, your psyllium seeds moving bowels.
You serve every part of our bodies, in sickness and health, with every part of yours.
3. You, from our soil, will be instantly recognizable to my amma, unlike the cranberries and grapefruits I’ve brought home. Already, I can see her grin, hear her stories of slicing you thick, baking your flesh to bring out its sweetness. Of course, that was a long time ago. She hasn’t been back to India in ten years, not since she and my father divorced.
I know what you’re going to ask. The answer is yes. Yes, she misses Chennai, misses eating sweet jackfruit cut fresh from the tree, misses the Indian Ocean washing her feet. But fear suffocates longing. The sly looks, the whispers that trail divorcées in India—they sound tiny, trivial. But make no mistake: they can crush a woman.
You, plantain, will remind her of when she was fearless. She knows you from childhood, just as I do. You will remind her that not everything lost is gone forever. That love can come later in life, in strange and familiar forms, if only we are open to it.
4. This I know for sure: you will nourish me. Just one of you has 218 calories and 57 grams of carbohydrates. Low in sugar, high in potassium. A woman needs a fruit like you.
5. You’re not picky. I’ve seen bunches of you upside down, strapped to the back of bicycles, bouncing around in pickup trucks. In open-air markets, you’re not fussed over like tomatoes or like lychees, handled delicately, arranged into small pyramids. No, you’re tossed carelessly on the ground, stepped over, and sometimes stepped on.
I suppose you can’t afford to be high maintenance, what with your brown spots and leathery skin. You are not mango-sweet, not rice-simple, not pepper-fiery. You’re cheap—but not easy.
I’m glad, because I want you all to myself.
6. Some years ago, in Uganda, I hiked in Kabale forest. After a decade in the aid-work industry, I was tired: of money ill-spent, broken water pumps, and crop seeds sprouting once and never again. Tired of the 8,000 miles between my mother and I. But it seemed too late to change. This life was all I knew now.
And then, there you were, majestic, overgrown, no farmer to harvest or tame you, just a monkey watching you—and me—with unblinking eyes.
Seeing you like that, I saw how exquisite a life could be if it grew fully into itself.
I left Uganda a month later.
7. “Composing the leaf,” amma says, “is an art.”
I’ve eaten from your leaves with my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents. I’ve eaten from your leaves at ages 6, 12, 23, 29. Cross-legged on a white tile floor, under a coconut tree, in the dim coolness of a temple.
How do I explain you sacred.
8. I’ve eaten you as steamed matoke in Uganda, ripe-fried bajji in India, oil-soaked alloco in Cote d’Ivoire. Now, back in Canada in my thirties, I find you in some stores, always in the “exotic produce” section. Like most things labelled “exotic,” you look tired, worn down. But as the vows go, “for better or for worse,” right?
Once I have you back home with me, I slice you paper-thin, spice you with paprika and black pepper, bake you for 45 minutes at 400 degrees. Only a dab of coconut oil and a dash of salt. No deviations, no additions. I must follow the recipe strictly. (You know my appetite for you is endless—but these days, like amma, I have to watch my cholesterol.)
9. Wikipedia lists more ways to “do” you: bolitas de platano in Puerto Rico, nagasari in Indonesia. You’re certainly popular—but that’s not why you interest me.
It’s knowing I will encounter some version of you—and therefore, home—everywhere I go.
“You’ll never be alone because you’re always in my thoughts,” amma says. She smiles when she says this, showing large, pearly teeth—the same teeth mirrors show me.
10. I’ve always thought of you as male—just look at you. Plantano macho. When I realized your flowers are both male and female, that you possess both ovaries and stamens, my feelings for you didn’t change.
Amma would understand. Ever since her divorce, she’s said, “Man, woman or alien, it doesn’t matter—as long as they make you feel at home.”
11. You make me feel at home.
12. No, that’s not right—you feel like home.
13. No, that’s not right either.
You’ll be what I want. Yes, that’s what I mean to say.
You’ll be what I want, according to my mood, my hazardous cravings. Women peak sexually at 35; I am 32 now. Maybe I’ll strip you naked, rub you tenderly with spices, grill you. Maybe I’ll bruise your young leaves, boil them cruelly. Maybe I’ll distill you into marmalade, eat you from the jar.
I am Asian, woman, immigrant. These bodies are not allowed to wear desire. But you have all the same identities as I. Somehow, that gives me permission. To do what? To have my way with you. To crave what resembles me. Is that vanity, narcissism? Or is that resistance, in a culture that longs only for pale Western things?
14. A Hindu legend my mother tells often: on the eve of his marriage, the elephant-headed Ganesha finds his mother, goddess Durga, in the kitchen, frantically scooping rice into her mouth.
“I’m afraid your wife won’t feed me enough,” she confesses, ashamed. In India, the husband, his mother and wife share a house, with the bride ruling the kitchen.
Ganesha leaves, returning with an uprooted plantain tree. “This is your daughter-in-law,” he declares. Meaning: his mother will never go hungry.
Now, in religious festivals across India, a plantain tree is dressed in a sari, placed beside the statue of Ganesha and worshipped as “Kola Bou”: the “banana bride.”
Of course, I’m no God—but it’s good to know we have precedent. And to know, too, that my mother will never go hungry.
15. I know you’ll age well: skin green and flesh creamy-white in younger days. Both yellowing, softening in middle age. Black pudding at the end: your most fragrant, sweetest self.
16. More than death, I fear life with an abyss at its center, its contours your shape, which is always shifting: sometimes, a hot line of desire. Other times, the tender curve of my mother’s cheek. Occasionally, the craggy jut of the Indian peninsula.
You see, everything dear to me is lost or soon will be: our home in India, my Tamil, my amma. My body, my senses. All my lovers, past, present and future. But you, plantain, are perennial. You will be eaten, rot or die of disease—and you will be reborn. You will grow again and again in my lifetime. And when I die, you will plant on my grave, where I’ll be buried beside my mother. Then, it will be us nourishing you as you nourished us—our bones, our bacteria, our flesh.