by Tahseen Khaleel
Runestone, Volume 1
I am lying down in a dark room in the back of the Mario Tricoci School on Sheridan Avenue on a fall afternoon. I have been given ample warning not to come here by my best friend, Sana: “They pick people off the street to give terrible haircuts,” she had told me darkly, as she ran a finger through what I thought was a rather chic bob that she had gotten there previously, “And I don’t think they clean any of their things.”
But here I am in the middle of a Mario Tricoci facial, a few days later. My eyes are squeezed shut, but it isn’t doing any good. The magnifying lamp is so bright, it is shining right through my eyelids, and a tiny woman with garishly outlined lips is slathering my face with something cool and creamy. I would probably be enjoying this if she didn’t talk so much.
“You’ve got nice skin, honey,” she tells me, “It’s too bad about your pores though. Get a steamer, it’ll do you good.”
“Mmhmm.” I mumble, as she smooths some of the cream around my lips.
“You do anything at home to get your skin this way?” I am suddenly alarmed as I feel her fingertips press firmly over my eyelids, going in circles. I see fuzzy pink spots on the insides of my eyelids. I am nearly one-hundred-and-four percent sure that she shouldn’t be doing this– aren’t eyes and lips safe zones or something like that? But I say nothing and clear my throat.
“Yes, sometimes I use– ” I pause, and repeat the word in my head before speaking it out loud. “I use too-murr-ik masks at home.”
“Ahhh, turr-murr-ik!” she enunciates, as if to clarify, and if my eyes were open, I would guess she would be nodding in approval.
I sigh at her pronunciation.
“Great thing, turr-murr-ik,” the esthetician repeats, chattering away, glopping more cream on my forehead. “Sometimes the best stuff is the old stuff.”
It seems that in whatever odd instance I find myself during which the discussion of Indian spices transpires, the word ‘turmeric’ is unfailingly pronounced a different way every time. And somehow, no matter how I pronounce the word, no matter how different the circle of individuals that I happen to be surrounded by at the time, I seem to do so incorrectly.
Past consultation of the ‘T’ volumes of the Oxford Dictionaries offered me only one pronunciation of “the Indian perennial herb (Curcuma longa) of the ginger family with a large, aromatic yellow rhizome”, and it is ‘turr∙murr∙ik’, wherein the first syllable is pronounced with a round, hard ‘turr’, like the turret of a tower or a tank. I tried this pronunciation once with a friend at work when discussing remedies for colds and she blinked and corrected me quickly.
“No, no, it’s pronounced ‘too-murr-ik’!” she said with a laugh, flipping her long, blonde hair. I felt my Indian showing.
How I hate this pronunciation: the rounding out of my lips to issue a soft ‘T’ sound strikes me as thoroughly pretentious, and unfailingly reminds me of tumors. How could this possibly be correct? But a quick glance at the American English dictionary confirms this: “Turmeric (too∙murr∙rik) | noun: A bright yellow aromatic powder derived from a rhizome, used primarily in Asian cookery for both flavoring and coloring.”
But I had been let down once before by the Oxford Dictionaries, so I consulted Merriam Webster for a final opinion, and lo and behold, I found not one, not two, but three pronunciations of the word: “Turmeric (‘turr∙murr∙rik’ also ˈtoo∙murr∙rik’ or ‘tyü∙murr∙rik’): a yellow rhizome of the ginger family, or the powder prepared from this plant, often used as a condiment, as in curry powder, or as a yellow dye, a medicine, et cetera.” I nearly threw the book out of the window in frustration. I had been right every time I pronounced the word, even when I was wrong!
But I did appreciate Merriam Webster’s acceptance of multiple standards of sound and stress patterns for syllables, and decided that I would go with whatever people would use in conversation, and if they corrected me, so be it. I wondered why I even bothered with these English pronunciations, anyway. Turmeric (pronounce it however you please) has only ever been haldi, the Urdu word, to me; the offensively loud, yellow powder my mother spoons carefully out of a silver tin next to the ginger garlic paste, and drops into a pot of frying onions for nearly every meal.
“Haldi is extremely important,” she always tells me, watching as my face crinkles in distaste. “It’s good for you in every way!”
And she is not the only one to think so, apparently. According to an article called “Turmeric and curcumin: Biological actions and medicinal applications” by Dr. Ranajit K. Banarjee at the Indian Academy of Sciences, turmeric has been used in Asia for thousands of years and is a major part of natural Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Its rich, golden, earthy hue was beloved by the continent, and it was thus primarily used as a dye before its medicinal properties were discovered. Dr. Banarjee explains that the name appears to derive from Middle English as turmeryte or tarmaret. The origin of these names is uncertain, but a more widely accepted etymological hypothesis is that the word has Latin roots, evidenced by the phrase terra merita, or ‘merited earth’.
Turmeric has a peppery, warm, and rather bitter flavor. It is a bright, sickly orange-yellow in its tuberous form, and becomes a less sickly, dark golden yellow when it is crushed into a powder. Its only saving grace is its mild fragrance, which is slightly reminiscent of orange and ginger, in my opinion. It is an essential ingredient in Indian cuisine, something my mother never fails to tell me.
“You’re twenty-one and you can’t even put together a proper salaan,” she clucks at me one day after I burned up a salaan, or curry, in a particularly astonishing way (there were very, very large flames). “Look here.”
My mother nudges me to the side and I watch her as she starts the curry over, bringing out a new pot and setting it over the stove. She has me chop up onions and tomatoes as she measures out spices.
“You only need five things to cook an Indian meal,” she tells me. “Everything else is just fancy stuff. Onions, tomatoes– Good God, I told you I wanted slices, not chunks– ginger garlic paste, chili powder, and oil.”
I consider the bubbling golden oil slick at the bottom of the pot before she drops in my onion and tomato chunks, and recall that there is a color missing from this concoction. I step past her and drop a spoonful of turmeric powder into the pot.
“And haldi, right?” I am slightly afraid that I have ruined the curry again in this tiny moment of bravado.
“Ahh! Yes, six ingredients with turmeric,” she grins and stirs the pot, turning on the fan above the stove. The kitchen now reeks of onions. “Good job, see, you’re not so bad at this after all! And you put in just the right amount. Your dad always puts in too much!”
Indeed he does. The mark of a family dinner at my house that my father has cooked is that for a day afterward, everyone’s hands are always stained yellow from the excessive amounts of turmeric he uses. It drives my mother crazy, and it is slightly off-putting, to be sure, but this tiny after effect of a family gathering has become something of a joke amongst my relatives.
This turmeric tattoo, of sorts, is a timeless little detail that has consistently repeated itself in the twenty or so years my extended family has gathered together, ever since my parents, uncles, and aunts first settled in Chicago. It colors the holidays they brought over with them from India and made sure their children celebrated without fail, in the mounds of sweet, yellow, fried dough balls called laddoos that we stack on the ends of the table on the Eid feast at the end of Ramadan, and scents the biryani, the rice dish of the Mughal kings, that lays handsomely in a tray as the centerpiece. It even finds its way into the American holidays we children have co-opted for our immigrant parents from the land of our birth: it is my cousin Humaira’s solemn duty to prepare the fixings for the turkey every Thanksgiving. Her secret ingredient for her beautifully golden stuffing is a dash of haldi.
Haldi also leaves its loving fingerprints as each member of this new generation starts their own lives. Each summer, one of my thirty cousins inevitably seems to get married. The night before the wedding festivities start, my aunts ground up turmeric and mix it with water, sandalwood, and a bit of jasmine, resulting in a musky-scented, thick, golden paste the night before the haldi ka rasam, or turmeric ceremony.
But my cousins and I use a more apt term, in my opinion, and call this ceremony the haldi war instead. Because indeed, that is what all of my aunts’ hard work amounts to the next day: the merciless, unceremonious smashing of the fragrant aforementioned mixture into everyone’s faces. No one is safe, not a mother, not a father, not even a grandparent, and especially not the bride or groom.
At my cousin Aisha’s haldi ka rasam, I made it a point to trace a large, curling yellow mustache above her lips, finishing my masterpiece with a large blob of turmeric paste on the tip of her nose. My handiwork gleamed and dripped off her face, in stark juxtaposition to her glittering bridal finery.
“Just wait till your wedding,” she told me, scowling and laughing all at once.
The haldi ka rasam is usually the first event in most Indian wedding ceremonies, because the messy turmeric mixture guests spread over their skin is believed to be antiseptic in nature, and leaves a slight, warm, golden hue on everyone’s hands and faces. The idea is that everyone leaves the haldi war happy, healthy, and golden-faced for all of the subsequent wedding events, excited for new beginnings, with the blessings of ancient traditions.
The claim that turmeric promotes good health is by no means a new one. In fact, for thousands of years, turmeric has been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine as a remedy for stomach and liver ailments, pulmonary and gastrointestinal distress, aches, pains, wounds, sprains, and is even used topically as a balm to heal sores and blemishes. It is believed that the plant has immense bactericidal, antimicrobial, and antiseptic properties. But according to an article released by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2012, called “Herbs at a Glance: Turmeric, Science, and Safety”, there is apparently “little reliable evidence to support the use of turmeric for any health condition because few clinical trials have been conducted.”
But it seems that this has not deterred India from continuing to celebrate the benefits of turmeric. If an elder hears you cough or sneeze, they will direct you to haldi ka doodh, or milk with turmeric (a thick, orange-yellow drink which I have personally always found horrifying unless sweetened with honey), swearing that it ‘clears you up inside’. Haldi ka rasams continue to mark the beginnings of weddings across the country. South Indian peoples take things a step even further, and participate in the Haldi Kumkum ceremony, a yearly festival in which young women gather together and exchange bowls of fresh turmeric and vermillion (called kumkum in Hindi) as a symbol of starting afresh in their friendships with one another, good wishes for their future husbands, and excitement for new beginnings.
It seems that the antiseptic benefits of turmeric are as widely touted by my own family and friends as they are by my country of origin. Take for instance, an episode with my aunt when I once had a particularly bad bout of acne: my aunt finds me moaning in her bathroom one summer afternoon about yet another pimple, this time at the center of my chin. I was positive that this was the final component in the Ursa Major constellation of pustules that had cropped up on my face over the past few weeks.
“None of that Clearasil stuff,” my aunt says, tutting. “For problems like this, we need a foolproof remedy.”
She signals me to follow her to the kitchen, and pulls out two crooked, light brown sticks of raw turmeric from her spice drawer.
“It’s stronger when we use it from the source,” she explains when I ask her why we did not just use the powder. “Follow me.”
We make our way out to the concrete patio in her backyard, and suddenly, without any warning, she smashes the sticks of turmeric on the ground repeatedly, and starts scrubbing the concrete with them.
“Here, take the other one and do it with me!” She hands me the other stick.
In horror, I obey her and scrub the ground with the stick, watching as orange-yellow shreds of tuber tear away from it. Ants crawl towards the new yellow stains on the concrete, take a sniff (or feel around with their antennae, whatever it is that ants do), and run in the opposite direction.
My aunt takes the stick from me, and douses it with water from a hose. She examines them, and smiles proudly.
“Here,” she says, handing the sticks to me, “Now just scrub the tip of these on your pimples, and they’ll be gone by morning!”
I take the sticks, thank her, and run back inside. I toss them out in the bathroom and dig around my cousin’s medicine cabinet for her Epiduo medication. If that haldi wasn’t good enough for the ants, it certainly wasn’t good enough for me.
But years later, in college, I once spend a night at my friends Sana and Amina’s apartment, and find myself a bit more open to the antiseptic properties of turmeric. We are sipping chai that Amina has expertly prepared after only one consultation with her mother, and we are talking about boys. Suddenly, Sana declares that she wants to have a spa day, and pulls out a packet of turmeric powder she picked up on Devon Avenue (the little India of the Rogers Park neighborhood, where I attended school) earlier this week.
“Let’s make haldi masks!” she says excitedly. I groan, remembering the sticks I scrubbed on the concrete with my aunt summers ago. But seeing the neatly packaged ochre powder, I decide that this method of blemish-prevention appears considerably less barbaric, and give it a try. Besides, there are no ants running away for dear life this time.
We tie our hair back as Sana mixes the powder with water, and puts a glob of paste in each of our palms. I smooth the turmeric paste over my cheeks, forehead, nose, and chin, and help Amina with her mask.
“Oooh girl, you will positively glow,” Sana tells Amina. “Wait till Hamid sees you in your ethics class tomorrow!”
“Oh my God, shut up!” cries Amina as we laugh, and her face is probably turning red, but it is now too yellow and covered in paste to tell.
It is interesting to consider the things that we swear by, that at times, seem to have no logical or scientific basis. It astounds me that even thousands of years later, we pin our hopes so much on old traditions that we are sure that somehow, some way, will help us achieve the things we desire. I wonder if centuries ago in the Indian subcontinent, teenage girls worried about their acne, and spread yellow paste over their faces in the hopes that someone might take notice of their golden glow the next day. I wonder if an aunt offered up an old remedy to a worried young girl, and whether it really was a balm for her blemishes, or just a balm for her heart.
I had never thought that something as insignificant and frankly, as humble and rather ugly, as turmeric could have left so many little yellow fingerprints on my life. Whether it serves as a mark of adulthood in knowing the proper amount of spice to cook with, or it is being smeared onto the face of a loved one before sending them off into one of the most important partnerships of life, or even affording a young girl some reassurance that an unsightly pimple will disappear and a boy she likes might notice her, it is an odd, but sweet realization that turmeric, terra merita, this merited earth, has accompanied me through so many of the merits of life.
And as I leave from my facial at the Mario Tricoci School on Sheridan Avenue that fall afternoon, blinking in the brightness of the white autumn sky after squeezing my eyes shut for so long, I realize I agree with my chatty esthetician. Sometimes the best stuff really is the old stuff.
Loyola University Chicago
Tahseen Khaleel is a senior at Loyola University Chicago majoring in biology and minoring in biostatistics and English. She enjoys reading and writing about the intersectionality between religion and nationality, as well as the experiences of immigrants in the South Asian diaspora in various forms of media.