A daughter returns home to Nepal from the United States and encourages her mother to start a pickle company—and preserve generations-old recipes.
“I ran so fast, I could snatch a flying bird right out of the sky,” Ama said.
That’s precisely what she did instead of going to school.
“That buffalo shed? That’s no school!” she said. At 69, Ama, my mother, may not run as fast as she used to, but her mouth hasn’t slowed down.
The buffalo shed was her father’s idea. It was the first school in Arthar, a village in Parbat in midwestern Nepal, named after the number of ethnic groups that populated it. While the buffalos went out to graze in neighboring Panchase’s wet forests, the children sat on mounds of hay and read from their textbooks. When the buffalos returned, school was over.
“But there was a master ji who lived with us, and he would teach me a few things after dinner,” Ama said, referring to a teacher who was posted in the village and stayed with them in the house, and who’d occasionally offer English lessons in the evening.
“Like B-A-T, cat!” she sang out loud in that familiar rhythm for memorization that most Nepalis find lodged in their bones. I didn’t correct her.
When I moved back to Kathmandu from New York in 2016, Ama slept beside me every night for two weeks. But soon, she complained that I am just like my father. That like Baba, I’m asleep even before my head hits the pillow. It’s her way of asking me for time. In the years I’ve been gone, two things have happened. One is that an earthquake had shaken her and the country, and the other is that she had started taking English classes.
While she told me how she can no longer trust the ground beneath her feet, she also told me how learning the English alphabet had woken her up. Suddenly shapes had meaning for her. Suddenly signboards were no longer unfathomable patterns. It was also around this time that she began to string sentences like, I am a woman. I am Nepali. I am a mother.
“I am no school,” she said out loud one night. We laughed at the same time but for different reasons. She was nervous because she had accidentally expressed an insecurity in a language that is not hers. I was delighted that my mother was taking risks in a language that is not hers.
“All my life, I’ve cooked three meals a day and cleaned the same dishes over and over again. I’ve achieved nothing. Given nothing. I have no knowledge,” Ama said. But before I could tell her how wrong she was, she turned away from me. “And after I die, no one will remember I ever lived, right?” she said.
I couldn’t sleep that night.
After that night, I began to see Ama more fully as a woman with needs, desires, regrets and fears, and less as my full-time mother. If in the past I had been annoyed at her for treating me like a child, it was only because I was treating her no more than a mother, defined within the limited vocabulary of home and kitchen. I remember those afternoons when I’d come home from school and if Ama wasn’t at home ready with warm food anticipating my arrival, I’d get frustrated and whine at Baba. “But where did she go? Why is she out? When is she coming back?” As though she wasn’t allowed to exist in the world as her own woman.
If I didn’t find Ama at home and Baba offered to make something for me to eat, I’d cringe my nose and walk away from him because everything else was subpar.
“But no one in the world cooks better than you, Ama,” I’d tell her. “If that’s not knowledge, if that’s not something you have offered me, our family and can offer the world, what is?”
We launched ĀMĀKO, our intergenerational pickle company, in the summer of 2017. In the Nepali language, the suffix ko denotes possession—like an apostrophe s. ĀMĀKO means mother’s.
It wasn’t easy convincing Ama to start this business. “Why?” she protested. “You guys like my cooking because you are family, but strangers will not like it.” I joked with her that making achār is not cooking, so she’ll be fine. But she didn’t appreciate the humor.
My relatives dissuaded me at first. Some of them even scolded me. They saw it as a burden. “You’ve returned home from America and you want to do these American things. This is Nepal. Wake up. Your parents are old, don’t trouble them. Just let them rest,” they said.
But I remembered what I had heard in my mother’s voice that night I couldn’t sleep. I’d heard a desire to be more, do more, and leave more behind. Would she be able to rest if she didn’t find an answer to the question of her existence, or how her story is told when generations later, a family offered her a plate at the annual ancestral feast? Would she arrive? Would she be happy?
When I gave in to Ama’s protests after the first few weeks and decided against starting a company, she brought up the idea every day over lunch, over a slice of mango, while walking around the house with the dogs. “So, we really aren’t doing the business, right? It’s probably not a good idea anyway, no?” she asked, searching for a counter-argument. I saw her pushing against the seed of excitement that had just been planted in her.
At that moment, Ama looked younger to me—she looked like she did in an old photo of her where she is wearing a long skirt, standing upright, chest out, chin up.
We started on a post-rain wet Saturday morning at a small agro-market in Boudha, a neighborhood in the northeastern part of the city. The grass was uncut and we had to remind ourselves to bring mosquito repellent the next time. Other vendors came to our table to see what we were all about. “Achār? Oh, I can make that at home,” one of them said. “Achār? Oh, I can’t eat it. I have gastric,” another one said. But when the first customer, sweaty from playing tennis, bought our first jar of bitter melon, I handed over the money to Ama. She handled it like she was touching something divine: she brought the worn-out notes to her forehead, and then to her heart.
In all her years of living and working from five in the morning to past ten at night every day including weekends, this was the first time Ama was getting paid directly for something she has produced.
Ama and I had always struggled to communicate with one another. We especially struggled to communicate with words. That is the case with most Nepali families. When I used to ask my parents about our family histories, my parents could only go as far back as to their parents.
Sometimes, they would mention a grandparent they had, but these characters felt nothing more a breeze, an apparition. Every year, we would set out nine plates of food to worship and invite our ancestors to an evening feast. When I asked who the nine were, my parents were unsure.
The night we sold our first bottle of achar, Ama opened up to me about why she never went to school. It wasn’t that she loved to take the sheep grazing, which had always been her story, or that she was too busy running with her hand up in the sky waiting for a bird. It was simple: too many boys, not enough girls.
“I didn’t want to be the only girl,” she said.
When I asked Ama what she’d be if she could choose to be anything, she said, “I don’t think like that. I just want to be able to see new things, understand things I don’t.”
In her book Big Magic, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the importance of living a life led by curiosity and not fear. She creates a conscious and intentional distance between the words “passion” and “curiosity,” understanding that curiosity could lead to passion, but that it doesn’t have to. That curiosity could just lead to making you an “interesting and interested” person.
In our family, we often got annoyed with Ama for moving things around the house. One day the sofa would be facing the sunny side of the room and just when we’d become comfortable with that setting, she would change it upon us. The next day, we’d find it by the door. She did the same thing in the kitchen; utensils, pots, pans, spices all danced from one cabinet to the other. On less forgiving days, I saw this as a way for her to exercise some control. On other days, I read this trait as boredom.
Ama’s curiosity about the world around her is what made her a good cook. If you told her that you like the way something tastes, she’d put it in her mouth and backtrack: what could possibly have gone into making this? And she’ll whip something close or better the next day. In Singapore, we lived in a gated community of Nepalis: all the men worked for the Singapore government as “Gurkhas”—basically mercenary folk—and the women raised kids and fed their families. Almost every household ate rice and lentils twice a day. We did, too. But Ama would sprinkle anchovies in the potatoes, she would buy vermicelli noodles and make mee siam for dinner, she’d serve cucumbers with peanuts, and sambal, and she would blend onions and spices to make a mean prawn curry. My mother was already living a life of curiosity.
To ferment is to boil without applying heat. It is to transform. To alter states. To decay into a new life.
Like many groups of people across cultures, space, and time, the Gurungs from the western Parbat region in Nepal fermented their vegetables in surplus season, so that they could enjoy the harvest in the dead of winter.
When I asked Ama who taught her how to make achār, she gave me a quizzical look. “I didn’t learn it from anyone,” she said. “I watched people do it. And when my time came, I did it.”
Ama has always been a hands person.
In the stifling heat of Singapore, she spent her afternoons knitting thick woolen sweaters to take back to Nepal as presents. When we went to her village one summer, she learned how to weave carpets: she wove pink roses, colorful boxes with lines, just so we could lay them on the mud floors of the house.
We have always been hands people.
At the farmers’ markets where we sell out products, some customers told us that our achars are too pricey. “Is it because of the packaging? It’s beautiful, but not necessary. Can you just give it to me for cheaper in a plastic bag? I don’t need these bottles,” some of them said.
What they didn’t know was that it took us two months to arrive at the labels we loved. That we sat with our designer and illustrator for hours toiling over each iteration to make sure that each jar was uniquely labeled. That each ingredient was drawn so that people like Ama can read images without having to decipher the shape of letters—and words.
Ama has always lived a life in pursuit of beautiful things. Even though she had a difficult time feeding her family of five with the allotted government ration, Ama still found ways to beautify our stuffy two-bedroom apartment in Singapore. Used milk cans turned into vases. Dinner plates were arranged like flower petals in a glass case. Cups and bowls were stacked up in a wave of upside-down “V”s. TVs were covered with crocheted heart-shaped shawls.
The morning of our first day as ĀMĀKO, Ama took a shower and changed her clothes three times before she decided on a white kurta top and black pants. She asked to wear an apron around her waist. “Something to hold me together,” she said.
Minutes into standing at our market table, someone asked her if she made the achārs, and if the company was, indeed, hers. She let out a nervous laugh and looked at me, as though she was asking for permission.
“It’s hers,” I said.
“It’s mine,” she said.