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The language of coconut shrimp curry

Updated: Mar 24

By Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

ORLANDO, Florida—We are eating a favorite lunch of rice with coconut shrimp curry when I ask my father about the over-sized engineering drawing of a temple. It was found when the guest room bed was moved to an assisted living residence. But the slow heat surrounding the succulent shrimp, and deep notes of bay, cinnamon, and clove, distract us both. No one speaks for a full ten minutes.


He says nothing about the time it took to do the meticulous drawings, the ways he curved edges around hand carved replicas of ancient Indian figures. He doesn’t speak of the hours hunched over a worktable for those plans and the more strait-laced buildings on other sheets, calculating the dimensions and weights in his head, double checking them, and then confidently inking the page. He calculated without a CAD program, and without even a pencil many times in his life. In jungle conditions in Thailand where I was born, when he engineered ideas for a potential dam over the Mekong River in 1962, he didn’t need a power cord.


It’s nearly sixty years later now and he can no longer figure numbers nor articulate plans. There really isn’t much he has to say about the temple. It seems the ginger-onion-y promise of coconut shrimp curry, its base note of flavor, familiar and tantalizing, communicates what he needs. The recipe has been a plated witness to his journey from Bengal to Thailand to Chicago, and later to Kansas and then Oklahoma and now Florida. If anything can tell the story of who he is, it may be this forkful.


On the kitchen wall hangs a fine, glossy photo of the completed temple, blue skies and fanciful carvings bursting with life, the only engineering project my father ever framed, let alone hung on a prominent wall. Chasing rice onto his fork, and without looking up or embellishment, he says, “my life’s work,” and then continues to eat.


After lunch, I push the rolled drawings apart and blue-inked ends crackle to get back together. The light blue background and only slightly darker blue lines precisely mark out struts and support beams, boxy facades, and post thicknesses for coal plants and plant office buildings. The anomaly of the Indian Temple of Oklahoma City is an intrigue.


Who would have guessed my straightforward father, an engineer’s engineer who doesn't speak his interior thoughts or memories often, would choose this fanciful and spiritual building to represent what he offered the world?

This seems like a submerged, never-discussed piece of him. Questions rise. Why was this missed? Then, blame. As Kathryn Schulz says in “When Things Go Missing,” in the New Yorker, that’s "an impressive act of outsourcing," given that nine times out of ten we are to blame for losing whatever it is. She is writing of tangible things, ones you can grasp. We all know that frustration. Car keys, eye glasses, the to-do list for the day, I am a master at loss. But this intangible and keen interest of my father's feels like a blow before the vast loss coming soon, that of death of a parent.


Nearly every missing thing can be restored, Schulz says. But decline and death is what concerns me today as it is, as she writes, “loss without the possibility of being found.” Underneath my father’s fading communications to the rest of us, his mind often stays in day-time dreams where he is in the process of losing something invaluable. I want to restore his calm. His measure and structure. Me, the one who is terrible at finding what I lose. I am no help as he calls to previously lost loved ones in one of his languages--Bengali, Hindi, English--where, though I am hopeful, none of his communiqués explain the glorious vision of the temple.


Last September we walked slowly around his neighborhood and he pointed to the shadows of leaves on the sidewalk. “Like art,” he said in his new, abbreviated way. I laughed like you do when surprised. I hadn’t known he noticed lacy leaves nor shadows like me, the writer. I felt enriched by this glimpse into an internal framework he rarely revealed.


I think soon I will forever look for more clues he left to that carefully protected space. The temple photo looms as the largest. But there are others. The slow heat from chili surrounding shrimp in a coconut curry is comfort. I can see it. He relaxes into the embrace of familiar aroma, taste, and just the right texture. He does not always indulge so openly his loves.



*shrimp curry photo from http://spicediary.com/

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