The Golden Child | Flower Shopping with Sana Javeri Kadri
December 12, 2018
The Golden Child
SANA JAVERI KADRI IS A TURMERIC-BOOSTING QUEER WOC SUPERHERO
Story and Photographs: Rohan Kamicheril
hen I first catch sight of Sana Javeri Kadri, the bubbly twenty-five-year-old is bopping up a bustling Mumbai street in a khadi salwar kameez the exact hue of freshly ground turmeric. Breezily sidestepping the mayhem of the city’s midday traffic, her disarmingly open smile and jaunty leather backpack give her the strangely apposite air of a hyperconfident and exuberant teenager.
The founder of Diaspora Co., an Oakland, CA-based company dedicated to bringing social equity and sustainability to the way turmeric is marketed and sold in the US, Javeri Kadri is mounting a small revolution in the way that spices make their way from developing economies—like India’s—into the foods and kitchens of wealthy consumers in the West.
Javeri Kadri was born in Mumbai but now splits her time between the city and Oakland. She has offered to take me on a tour of Bhuleshwar Market, one of her favorite marketplaces in the city, and a frequent childhood haunt. The open-air bazaar is lined with women selling their produce. Heaps of greens abound on every corner. An old woman standing by a monument crowded with pigeons sells grain to passersby. “It’s good karma to feed the birds,” Javeri Kadri explains as we walk over to the woman, who is standing near a group of other women vendors.
She picks up a tight bunch of fennel umbels. What do you do with the green fennel seeds? I ask her. “I don’t know if you really cook with these,” she says with a thoughtful squint. “Usually people just roast them and eat them.” A quick discussion with the ladies confirms this. She pops one of the green seeds off the bunch and flashes a placating smile at the ladies. She hands it to me to taste. The flavor is green and licorice-y, but grassier and with a shorter life than the dried seeds. She points out the still-warm mounds of steamed water chestnuts, magenta-black as hearts of coal and starchy white within. “I’ll come back,” she promises the ladies as we walk on.
Though Bhuleshhwar Market feels like it could be a million miles away from California, Javeri Kadri’s work, in many ways, is an attempt to bring this world a little closer to the one she inhabits in Oakland, and to create the possibility of equitable cooperation between the two.
Navigating the difficult divide between these two places doesn’t come without costs and compromises, not least of which is the emotional work of navigating the tug of two wildly different places that both feel like home.
“When I’m here, surrounded by all these people, I just want to be a Bombay kid shopping for her bhaaji,”
“I still don’t really identify as Indian-American,” she tells me, grimacing squeamishly at the term. “When I’m here, surrounded by all these people, I just want to be a Bombay kid shopping for her bhaaji,” she says with a rueful laugh.
As she thinks back on the stages in the development of her hyphenated identity, Javeri Kadri tells me about a childhood trip to visit family in the US. After days spent with relatives in their mostly Gujarati enclave on Long Island, she says, she was disoriented and upset by a visit to a local mall.
“I insisted that I would only use the restrooms in ‘America’,” she says with an incredulous giggle.
“My aunt kept telling me, ‘But this bathroom is in America!’ But I could only conceive of ‘America’ as the Gujju street that all my family lived on.”
America couldn’t be this place with no Indians. She chuckles to think back on it, and explains almost aphoristically: “America was where all the farsan was.”
Being in Mumbai, home to many impressive emporia of farsan—that glorious branch of Gujarati food dedicated to fried snacks—I have to concede that this sounds like a rather happy vision of America.
And yet, much of the struggle for Javeri Kadri (and Diaspora Co.) lies in the fact that America is not, in fact, one happy, multicultural open-air market. Even when ingredients like turmeric make it into the popular consciousness, they often do so only by first being scrubbed of much of the cultural baggage that producers fear will scare mainstream consumers away. And the conventional economics that bring products like turmeric to the marketplace also encourage a race to the bottom, with retailers looking to pay the lowest possible prices and give the least possible consideration to questions of fair labor practices and sustainability.
“But that one sentence really stuck with me—of America as a marketplace. I’ve been trying to frame how my politics work within that statement.”
Javeri Kadri tells me about a sobering talk she had with a relative in the US who voted for Donald Trump. He explained his decision by saying that he viewed the country primarily as a marketplace—and that he had treated his vote as he would any other economic decision.
“I found that so disappointing,” she says, breaking her stride as if struck by the meanness of the idea. “But that one sentence really stuck with me—of America as a marketplace. I’ve been trying to frame how my politics work within that statement.”
When she first started Diaspora Co., her prime motivation was to see how she could turn the appetite for turmeric among a largely white, upper-class consumer base into income and opportunity for brown farmers. “That was the driving force for the first six months of it,” she confesses.
But as the work continued, the intrinsically collaborative, community-minded nature of the work became increasingly evident to her. In addition to creating income for small farmers in India, Diaspora Co. was also paying queer women of color in Javeri Kadri’s Oakland, CA, community for their work and providing them with supplementary incomes, creating the foundations for a community of queer people of color.
She ensures that workers in every link of her supply chain—from the farmers to the truck drivers to the copackers—all make a living wage. All while ensuring that her farm-to-table turmeric is organically grown from heirloom seed and freshly milled. A feat, she explains to me, completely unique in the global spice trade as far as she knows.
We duck into a narrow galli, blue and dusk-like in the filtered shade of the tarpaulins stretched out overhead. In a dark little stall, Javeri Kadri picks through a numinous pile of golden and yellow double marigolds, each blossom plush and full as a baby’s balled-up fist. “Oh God, I don’t have enough money,” she wails, and then laughs. She opens her wallet to the vendor and explains her predicament, pulling out all of her remaining cash and handing it over to him. He chides her gently, telling her not to worry as he pours coil after coil of the garlanded flowers into plastic bags for her.
“They’re too beautiful,” she explains, about spending the last of her money. “It just has to be done.”
As she leads me back out into the chaos of the city, she’s still brimming with stories that connect her life in the US with the mazy Mumbai backstreets of her youth and the fields in Vijaywada that supply Diaspora Co. with their precious golden turmeric.
Bringing these places together on an equal footing may seem like an insurmountable challenge, but it’s one that Javeri Kadri seems undaunted by. Freighted with her assortment of plastic bags she continues on her way unhindered, golden blooms spilling out exuberantly around her as she goes.