Lemons for Life … or Death

Background provided by MN: MN is an individual who grew up in the Maharashtra state of India, where they learned 4 languages including Sanskrit. They recently moved to America for further education.

Context: In Maharashtra, where MN is from, it is customary for a meal to be accompanied by a slice of lemon to be used as a condiment. The lemons in India are almost circular (spherical) so the nub is hard to find unless one is paying attention.

Main Piece Transcription of interview (contains the context of particular performance and additional background information):

MN: In Indian food, you keep salt and a piece of lemon so that you can put it in anything like a curry or even rice, make it flavorful. And, so whenever you want to cut the lemon you always … you know there’s a nub (gestures to emphasize point) … on the side … you always cut it perpendicular to that. You always keep it flat and cut it like that because when someone dies in the funeral process, that’s when you cut the lemon parallel to the nub. Ummm … that’s because when you prepare a plate for the person who has died the lemon should be cut in that direction. And … like … my mother used to scold me because I didn’t pay attention, but it’s like a bad omen to cut it like this because it’s like you are invoking the dead. There’s just a fun (pause) little (even longer pause) fact that I learned that … always cutting … so like … now, I’m like … I am very like …. Always cutting like this (gestures cutting motion with hands). So on the plates for the dead, that’s when you cut the lemon with the nub.”

Me: “Can I interrupt you for a second? I just want to know, I just want to know, Do you know where your mom learned it? And do you think that’s like …only … to … um where … you’re from?”

MN: This is some item … it’s not like some book, I think. It’s like some, like knowledge that everyone knows this … it’s like. She learned it from … It’s just something that she was taught … and I was taught.

Analysis: MN is very enthusiastic about sharing their culture. I find it quite fascinating that this specific funeral right is extremely detailed. It clearly demonstrates how much thought and effort loved ones dedicate when preparing for their departed loved ones. It is also interesting because this specific ritual is not written down but rather a tradition that is passed down in MN’s culture. The specific focus on the way lemons are cut reflects on MN’s character as well because they are considerate and detail-oriented. Although cutting lemons is commonplace, the symbolism for the Maharashtrian people is extraordinary. Lemons can bring some dishes to life by providing additional flavor and the juxtaposition between zest and the loss of life is also telling of MN’s culture.