Food Is Love. Food Is History. Food Takes Center Stage In New Play
By MINITA GANDHI
Special to India-West
Minita Gandhi is a Los Angeles-based artist who was born in Mumbai. Gandhi’s plays include Muthaland, Daal and Duty, and The Sun and All its Sighs. Her new play Nerve will stage August 11-20 in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 20th Anniversary New Works Festival
While I was pregnant with my daughter during the pandemic, I had a visceral experience of the Ayurvedic principle that ‘food is medicine.’ More than anything I could order from a restaurant, I craved my mother’s dishes, the way only she could make them. She came to town for the birth and stayed with me for a few months postpartum.
During that time, she cooked all the food I loved…the simple foods: the kichadi, khadi, Gujarati thali, daal, and the postpartum Ayurvedic recipes to help my milk come in and give me energy. I felt so much comfort and nourishment, I would sometimes feel tears stream down my cheeks because my body needed this. I so vividly remember breastfeeding my daughter while my mother spooned kichadi into my mouth. It was a moment that symbolized food is so much more than taste. It is nourishment. It is history. It is legacy. Food is love.
Around this time my mother was also diagnosed with severe nerve damage in her hands and cooking became more challenging (among other things). I realized if I did not make the time to study and learn her recipes a part of our family tradition would be lost forever. A part of my mother would be lost forever.
In learning my mother’s stories while cooking with her, I’ve discovered the multitudes her recipes contain: growing up Jain and not cooking with any root vegetables, moving to the US, and bringing root vegetables into the diet. Her recipes that contain Corn Flakes, or Cream of Wheat originated from a time when rava wasn’t readily available in America and she had to improvise in the kitchen. She and my father would bring suitcases of spices from the motherland to keep her heritage alive through cuisine.
I believe this is the story of much of the Indian American community. We are the children of immigrants. And while growing up in America feeds us one thing, our home-cooked food feeds us another. When we take the time to ask questions and learn how to cook, roll the roti, and make the peda…we learn our history.
That is the origin story of my play Nerve. While the play is fiction, it explores the theme of ‘food as love’, and what we as first, second, and third-generation Indian Americans choose to carry with us and what we leave behind. Within that exploration, I have become curious about our relationship to tradition, elder care, and our relationship to food. The play explores this through a recently widowed, Gujarati Jain mother and her three daughters. It’s a deep dive into what we all have sacrificed for the American dream and what we may want to reclaim.
I also wanted to write complex roles for South Asian women 40+. My mother has long said she never sees herself accurately represented in media. I wanted to give her that because when women create the narratives we see on stage, we have an opportunity to showcase how fiercely awesome and amazing we are as we age. With a culture that traditionally supports the model minority complex, I wanted to bring forth a family who gets it wrong.
I couldn’t be more grateful to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for all their support. Theatre is a collaborative sport and I’m lucky to have had so many cooks in the kitchen. Over the past year, Berkeley Repertory Theatre gave my mother and me a chance to be in the kitchen together leading me to begin writing this story with support from the Ground Floor. And now to have Giovanna Sardelli and TheatreWorks support further development…it’s just an incredible opportunity for growth. We are at a critical age in the Arts. We must have a variety of stories from different communities so we can move past an entire culture being defined by any one story.
We have a stellar cast that features talented actors you’ll recognize from the stage and screen: Ranjita Chakravarty (Netflix’s Never Have I Ever), Tiffany Yvonne Cox (Hulu’s Reasonable Doubt), Rachna Khatau (ABC’s Baby Daddy), Miriam A. Laube (Broadway’s Bombay Dreams), and Uma Paranjpe (Broadway’s Life of Pi).
If you are interested in seeing a deliciously imperfect Indian American family, this play is for you.
(Nerve will receive readings as part of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 20th Anniversary New Works Festival, presented August 11-20 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto. Tickets to see a reading of Nerve: $20, Festival Passes: $60 to see readings of four new plays. Tickets can be purchased at theatreworks.org or by calling (877)-662-8978.)