What My Roots Taught Me

Observing how my family lived has connected me to our long-lost past.

grandmother and granddaughter cook with Indian spices

Mayur Kakade / Getty Images

I was born in Mumbai, a homeland adopted by my paternal grandparents. In 1947, they had to flee Lahore, now in Pakistan, due to the partition of India. The partition led to one of the largest mass migrations the world has witnessed. Fourteen million people became refugees overnight and it is reported that nearly two million were slaughtered in the strife that ensued.

Overnight, my entire family was rendered homeless and penniless and had to start life anew. While one branch of the family moved to New Delhi, my paternal grandparents first moved to Kolkata and then to Mumbai in the 1950s, India’s cosmopolitan financial capital. They rebuilt their lives, adapting to a new city, but they never forgot their roots, carrying their traditions with them, which I imbibed over the years. This is what I learnt.

Eat a Wholesome Meal

My paternal grandmother, barima, never forgot the flavors of her childhood. She grew up in Amritsar and, as a young girl, learned how to cook from her mother. Her uncompromising palate wanted to replicate the fresh and wholesome food of her home state, Punjab, known as the breadbasket of India, in her adopted home.

Spices have been the mainstay of our slow-cooked food, a commonality across the country. For over half a century, our family has ordered dry spices from the same seller who sources them from different spice-growing regions. Barima also made ghee, yogurt, pickles, and dessert at home. There has always been an abundance of fruit, vegetables, and nuts available for a healthy snack. And meals have always been eaten at our large vintage dining table at a fixed time, never slumped in front of the TV or staring at a phone. We still always eat together at the table, mostly fresh home-cooked food, relishing the recipes carried forward for decades.

Maintain an Impeccable, Minimal Wardrobe

My grandparents' and parents' generations were more frugal than ours, having seen scarcity in the years after partition. Barima lived by the words of iconic British designer Vivienne Westwood, “Buy Less, Choose Well and Make It Last.” Her wardrobe was a study in minimalism. She owned a few saris and salwar kameez, perhaps a purse or two, and just a few shoes and sandals.

Each time she wore her clothes, she came home to check them for stains or wear and tear. Each piece was carefully hand-washed, starched, and professionally ironed by the neighborhood dhobi. We had a sewing machine at home and she owned a beautiful sewing kit, mending her own clothes.

She didn’t buy what she didn’t need, and didn’t keep what she didn’t require any longer, gifting or donating her preloved clothes. She wore a single string of pearls through her life, despite all the wealth she later had the fortune of having. And yet, she was always the best dressed, developing a classic, timeless style which I try to replicate.

Follow a Simple Beauty Routine

My grandmother’s beauty routine was simple yet effective. She massaged her face with Charmis cream for 10 minutes before her shower and oiled her skin and hair after her bath. She followed this schedule for decades, maintaining her soft complexion and hair color and texture without resorting to any complex rituals.

Watching her for years with fascination, I fell in love with oiling my own skin and hair, a habit that I have embraced with relish. What I love is how simple it is in an age of complicated skin and haircare routines. Moreover, I marvel at how effective rituals such as abhyanga, or Ayurveda self-massage, are. And most importantly, I have learned how valuable consistency in good habits is in your life, especially as you grow older.

The Power of Faith

After her bath, my grandmother always sat with her japa mala (prayer beads) and her prayer books and prayed for an hour. Even till the very end, she never gave up her schedule or faith. In times of crisis and fear, faith has held me in good stead. Having weathered the pandemic and now grappling with climate change, which threatens the future of life on the planet, we need to have belief that anchors and motivates us to do better.

Whether it is my morning walks that have connected me to the world around or my meditation rituals at home, the time I spend reflecting and regrouping helps me change course if necessary or charge full steam ahead to tackle life head on.