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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

‘Venba’ Takes Me Back to My Roots Through Food and Family

Before I could muster up the courage to use the idli maker my mom gave me after I moved out, here I was making idli in a narrative cooking video game. Though Venba’s idli maker differs from ours, the fluffy steamed rice cakes at the end of the level were a familiar sight.

Venba centers on the main character of the same name. The story begins with her and her husband Paavalan as new Canadian immigrants in the 1980s, raising their first-generation son, Kavin. Venba is about adjusting to the new while trying not to chip away at traditions and ties to a country that was once home. Venba and Paavalan work to make ends meet in a place that devalues their history yet dangles a bright future ahead of them, all while trying to balance traditional and new values in their son.

As the game’s narrative progresses, I reminisced about my life as an immigrant from India, while the intermittent cooking puzzles had me reflect on fond memories from when I was younger.

I was 5 years old when my family hopped on a train to Chennai right before migrating to the United States. I faintly remember the beach overlooking the ocean and amusement park rides, but seeing the banana leaves decorated with tiny dishes—ranging from dal to different types of rice—every day was unforgettable. It's one of my last moments before moving across seas that I cling to, and seeing that Venba is from Chennai only made me more engrossed in her immigrant story.

Besides Venba’s love of gold bangles, Paavalan’s struggle to write while he searches for a well-paying job, their hesitancy with seeing things through Kavin’s generational perspective, the cultural divide, their financial issues, and even their challenges in introducing Kavin to his own culture resonated with me. I could even sense my own parents in the solemn yet zealous way Venba and Paavalan presented regional food to Kavin, giving their child a taste of his own heritage. Kavin rejecting their attempts, however, was unlike my own yearning for connection through food, but this difference shows that the chaotic lives of immigrant families can vary as much as our dishes.

Venba skips across years, presenting new conflicts among Venba, Paavalan, and Kavin—and rather than disrupting the growing tension around their family, it shows how it’s a never-ending struggle to get different generations of an immigrant family on the same page about their culture. The time skips also remind me how time is fleeting and how far I have come in my life, so much so that my eyes teared up while playing.

In the game, in the year 2006, Venba prepares layered biryani, which the developers have said is inspired by the style of biryani in Hyderabad, the south-central Indian city where I'm from. Despite the mutable nature of immigrant life, my mom's biryani is a constant, always earning high praise that it tastes just like home. So, I thought it was only right to have her play this level with me—which was entertaining on its own since the in-game recipe varies from hers. Still, she rushed to tell me to fry the onions before I could explain the mechanics, and was impatiently eager to know its taste when Kavin, Venba, and Paavalan sat down to eat. Here, I noticed the subtle generational difference as Paavalan ate with his fingers and Kavin ate with a spoon.

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Although I'm not a fan of biryani, moving out gave me a newfound responsibility to learn all of my parents' techniques to preserve those memories and tastes. After all, flavors from the hands of people we love wither away with time, leaving behind recipes with personal stories hidden between the lines of instructions. And in the level where Venba spins out murukku, I looked back on the time my parents taught me how to make perfect spirals, and how my husband took a shot and impressed everyone on his first try. While restoring recipes is the heart of Venba, all the stories that come to fruition are its beats.

It often dawns on me that my cooking will never be the same as my parents’. My parents’ kitchen clamor and the sizzles and sharp aromas of tempering spices are memories I will treasure but can never perfectly duplicate. As an immigrant, I have trepidation about losing touch with the past, but I feel grateful that I was swaddled in knowledge about my roots. And perhaps I shouldn't take the tandoor my dad built in the backyard for granted.

Even when Kavin gets hold of the recipe book belonging to his mom and grandmother, his struggle to understand the language acknowledges how history disappears in an inescapable cycle of change across generations. He comes to terms with who he is and grows to appreciate the nuances of what it means to grow up in a household battling uncertainty while building a future. Finally, I felt aligned with Kavin.

As Venba's story concluded with dosas and uthappam, I couldn't have asked for a better way to bring this story to a close. I had my parents play their favorites—my mom with her crispy dosas and my dad's late-night uthappam snack—and their excited giggles are moments I will cherish.

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