Introducing Catherine Ghosh
Currently resides: Virginia, USA
I have always been very sensitive to the world around me. I grew up in a valley surrounded by live volcanoes, in a city that was built upon a lake. At the very center of the city, called the Zócalo, there are buildings that tilt because of this.
Mexico City was built in such a seemingly precarious location, because of an Aztec King who believed in omens. Legend tells that the king instructed the people to settle only where they saw a heavenly eagle, with a snake in his mouth, sitting atop a cactus. The faithful people lived as nomads for years, until this very image appeared before them. Disregarding the fact that the omen had been spotted on a little island, in the middle of a lake, surrounded by active volcanoes—loyal to the king’s sacred vision—the people built their city atop the lake, in defiance to all those who said their endeavors would prove useless.
The city has now become one of the most densely populated in the world! I’ve always been inspired by this Mexican geography of my childhood because, to me, it represents having faith, taking risks and emerging triumphant against all odds. Mexico is therefore a city of joyful and colorful festivals that seem to declare: “What seems impossible becomes possible!”
Even as a child, I saw this hope in the smiles of the Mexican people. When I was 12 and my family moved out of Mexico City, I felt like a plant that had been uprooted from her nourishing soil and plopped into the desert of Southern California. For the Mexican legends and lifestyle had inevitably been woven into the emotional tapestry of who I was then, and who I am still, today.
Though I live in Virginia now, I carry the magnificent valley of Mexico City in my heart, complete with her majestic views of live volcanoes, and the notion that nothing is impossible if you set your heart on it. I like to believe that that this message trickles into everything I write.
Partying with the Dead
The year I turned eight, I waited for my deceased friend, Monica, to return from the dead to play a game of tetherball with me. I wanted to meet with her under the streetlight outside our homes, like we used to when she was alive. I waited and waited, until I was called inside. That night, before I fell asleep, I thought I heard her voice softly trickling in through the bedroom wall we shared.
For, in the land I was raised, we invite the deceased to move among us once a year, on the day known as Dia de Los Muertos, or The Day of The Dead. As a child growing up in Mexico, it was never too clear to me if the dead came back to life for this festival, or if we, the living, became temporarily dead. For the rituals included decorating the foreheads of sugar skulls and tombstones with our own names, as we playfully blurred the lines between where life ended and where death began.
I have fond memories of walking under lines of delicate paper flags flapping in the chilly, autumn wind, as colorful reminders of the fragile threshold that divides this world from the afterlife. The sound they made was said to hide the whispers of the deceased calling out to us. These bright pink, orange and purple flags made of papel picado were usually decorated with skeletons, carefully chiseled into the tissue paper, bearing phrases that celebrated our immortality like Amor Eterno or “Eternal Love”. For love, we were taught, is stronger than death. And this love would serve as the vehicle connecting the two realms, widely opening the gates that normally separate them. This excited me to no end!
The first to attend the Party of the Dead, are the deceased children, for the strongest lures are made of a mother’s love. Beginning at midnight, on October 31st it is believed that families are reunited for 24 hours with children they had lost. Over the next two days, November first and second, the child-spirits are followed by the spirits of the deceased adults, which are summoned with the help of elaborate altars meant to lure all their senses. These never failed to capture mine as well!
I will always be haunted by the delicious scent of anise baked into the Pan de los Muertos, or “Bread of the Dead”: sweet loafs whose dough is shaped to look like bones. Some were braided into circles to represent the cycle of life and death, or decorated with sugary teardrops as a way to sweeten the sorrow of grief. I always loved accompanying my mother to the bakery on Mexican festival days.
And I remember the strong women who carried oversized bushels of freshly picked cempasuchil, or wild marigolds in their shawls, while balancing toddlers on their hips. Like their Aztec ancestors, they had faith that the bright, orange blossoms would draw in the dead with their strong scent. For these flowers had healing properties that, traditionally, could have only come from the powerful afterlife.
From our rooftop, I watched the hills of San Bernabé flicker with candlelight as the graveyards swelled with anticipation and excitement. Every tombstone was adorned in ways that would help guide the spirits back. The offerings would include the deceased favorite dishes, incense, and live music, as the dead became guests of honor at the party. Altars of offerings were built in seven levels representing the universal elements the soul had to traverse to reach the afterlife. Above each altar is a large arch made of flowers. It represents the river believed to divide the temporary realm of existence from the eternal one.
Aztec mythology depicted this river as a stream of blood in which fearsome jaguars swam. Once a year, on The Day of The Dead, the river turns to flowers, making it effortless to cross. I spent a good portion of my childhood curiously searching for this river: looking for easy entrances into whatever existed beyond death, longing for answers to one of life’s greatest mysteries. The books in my father’s library gave me a plethora of perspectives, some more memorable than others.
Unforgettable is the day I stumbled upon glossy images of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, complete with apocalyptic angels waking the dead with trumpets, the naked Greek God of the underworld wrapped in a black serpent, devils escorting souls to hell, and especially the tortured expressions on the faces of their dead, terrified passengers. At eight, I definitely preferred the smiley faces of the skeletons that danced around Mexico on Dia De Los Muertos. And where were all the women in this painting?
Unlike the Greek, Hindu, Buddhist and Egyptian cultures, which depict the god of death as male, the Day of The Dead is presided over by a female goddess known as Mictecacihuatl, or “The Lady of The Dead”. It is she who grants the passage to infinite life, and this time of year, Mexico City explodes in her colorful, skeletal effigies. Along with fanciful paper maché skeletons that appear to be enjoying themselves, “The Lady of The Dead” is found around every corner, in the decorations around the city, and as the citizens of Mexico themselves, who dawn her disguise, making it impossible to tell who the real Mictecacihuatl is!
It is believed that on The Day of The Dead you never know if the people you run into on the street are dead or alive, and that all the graveyards overflow with partying spirits. To this day, graveyards excite me. They trace flickering lines between the animated bones in my body and the ones that decompose under the earth, inside coffins. They remind me that my stay here is limited and that the time of my exit is a complete and absolute mystery. I see my name carved into the tombstones and it doesn’t terrify me.
Every autumn I feel old parts of myself, and my life, dying. Sometimes I don’t realize this until struck by the sudden grief that comes with the prospect of burying them. I float through the catacombs of my consciousness taking inventory of expired wounds from my past, and of those that still haunt me; ones I’d like to descend on like frost sucks the green out of grass on cold mornings, or the Lady of The Dead sucks the life out of the dying. For, death means progress, she says. Death indicates dynamic evolution. Death is the shadow cast by the light of life itself. In Mexico, we party with the dead once a year. Ironically, it’s my favorite celebration of life!
© Catherine Ghosh
Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead –vegan version)
1/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
¼ cup coconut butter
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 package of active, dry yeast
¼ cup very warm water
3 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp anise seed
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. egg-replacer
- Bring almond milk to boil and remove from heat
- Stir in coconut butter, ¼ c sugar and salt
- In large bowl mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand 5 min.
- Add almond milk mixture
- Add 1 T egg replacer to the yeast mix, followed by the flour
- Blend well to form dough ball
- Knead dough until smooth
- Return to large bowl and cover with damp towel. Let rise for 90 min.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Knead dough again on floured surface
- Divide dough into 4ths and set aside one forth
- Roll the remaining 3 pieces of dough into three ropes
- On greased baking sheet pinch three ropes together at top& braid them
- Divide remaining forth of dough into two and make two “bone shapes”
- Lay the “bones” on top of the braided dough
- Cover dough with dishtowel and let rise 30 min.
- In a sauce pan mix anise seed, cinnamon, and 2 T sugar
- Cook down until sugar melts
- After the dough has risen for 30 min. brush the sugar mixture on it
- Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes
Shades of the Same Skin is an anthology of culture. The world is in need of a vigorous seasoning and it is why the poets in this book are willing to share their ethnicity. Each one will give some insight into their culture, music, clothing, food, traditions, and even share a few recipes. Some will engage in unique stories and folklore. Others will take us back to their childhood days and compare it to the experience of children today. A few will even welcome us into their homes to share items from their heritage.
This is also a book of unity. Its purpose is to show that without diversity, the world would be a boring place. Each poet in this anthology has a unique style because of where they came from, their experiences, and who they are. Their words are printed on these pages to inspire why we belong. We are all vital ingredients for the recipe to keep the world stirring.
Shades of the Same Skin is Available at the following Retailers:
Create Space: www.createspace.com/6171447
Creative Talents Unleashed: www.ctupublishinggroup.com/anthologies.html
100% of all proceeds from this book are being donated to the “Starving Artist Fund” to assist writers in becoming published authors. Purchasing this book can help a writer become a published author!