Koincha: A Bit of Indian Culture

Image Credit: N Engineer
Image Credit: N Engineer

It seems I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to Hamilton: The Musical a bit obsessively these days. Proof? This post. It started out innocently enough, a glimpse into a common Indian cultural practice made relevant in modern times, but somewhere along the way, this came out. Please bear with me. And don’t feel bad if you find yourself rapping parts of it. Enjoy.

Koincha

My koincha days are over

As a new bride, every visit to a relative
or the home of a friend who shared our same heritage
Ended with a routine that came to feel repetitive,
A habit that seemed primitive,
(Koincha)
I wondered, was it relevant?
(Koincha)
Did it have any benefit?
(Koincha)
But I fear I was too hesitant
to speak out to the negative,
so my feelings were irrelevant,
And we played along
(I would do no wrong).

Ready to leave, I’m asked to stay.
Despite future plans, we must delay.
Aunty enters the foyer, head covered, holds a tray of rice–
Uncooked, spritzed with turmeric–gotta smile, she’s just being nice.
Nestled with money, a gesture, a gift, a blessing.
I bow my covered head, cup my hands before me, nothing missing.
I hold a handkerchief, scarf, or napkin in my hands
and accept from her, fistfuls of rice, as the moment demands.
one, two, three, sometimes five,
always an odd number, for reasons I can’t contrive
The same mystical reason I never knew
that monetary gifts from Indians don’t divide by two.

But the moment isn’t over; there is more to settle the score.
One more part of the tradition before we go out the door:
From my palms she retrieves a pinch or two of rice,
maybe twenty grains, but consider it the price:

(Koincha) Negligible, but enough to say
that by giving, I receive all I need today.
(Koincha) Barely a biteful, but enough to convey,
“Come back for the rest another day”
(Koincha) a tiny bit, but enough to feel
We shared something more than this time, this meal.

We part, well-wished, say our fond farewells,
leave this house where thoughtfulness dwells,
Connected now, no longer a child,
No longer seen as just young and wild.
The shift from child to grown-up is now reconciled
We are welcomed, with some rice, and a smile
(perhaps, once we leave, together they chuckle).
They’ve offered support for our upcoming struggles.
We know they’ll help us in times of trouble.
We’re welcomed into the community of couples.

Back home I collect these rice packets
(Koincha is what we call them)
And cook a pulau (pilaf) with them
Or rinsed out the turmeric and made kheer (rice pudding) of them.
Through the meal we would feel the appeal of the spiel,
appreciation of tradition, of love without condition.

But eventually,
That first round of visits has to end.
And koincha comes no more;
For ourselves we have to fend,
And the links seem to grow a little thin to community.
We live busy lives, lose touch with the unity.
For meeting up we miss many an opportunity.

But friends came over for dinner the other day.
My husband had made dinner, and they brought an entrée.
After dinner, we cleaned up and they went away,
But they left behind a tray.

Every visit to my parents’ house ends the same way
(my in-laws’ house as well, I suppose I have to say),
with the inevitable question of what we want to take.
And so we dole out the food into random mismatched Tupperware
Share the fare, then we stare at the growing pile of plasticware,
taking up space in a designated drawer,
A spot we picked out specifically to store
all the dishes, and our wish is always not to forget–
To get the stack in a bag for when we next will have met.
But there’s this endless circulation of dishes to and fro,
And the balance of the spreadsheet never gets to zero,
‘Cause the moment that it happens, to someone’s house we’ll go
And the cycle will continue, and the pile will start to grow.
But this isn’t a bad problem, as far as problems go.

It’s the koincha of the future, the plastic give and take,
The guarantee again we’ll meet and share the food we make,
The comfort of the knowledge that even when we part,
If you leave behind a piece of you whenever you depart,
I’ll feel your presence here, know a part of you is near.
You can be assured I care, that you have nothing to fear.
And even if it’s only to retrieve a baking pan,
I’m comforted to know that I’ll be seeing you again.

I guess that after all, it really is quite splendid.
That my koincha days haven’t actually ended.

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Nivi Engineer is a novelist and playwright in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a mom of three boys, and escapes the never-ending sports calendar through reading. This month, she's learning that the capital of North Korea is Pyongyang. And now, so will you.