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My Worst Enemy... Is Me

By Upasya Swarna

Age Group: High School

“What do you want to ord-”

“Paneer tikka masala”

“Are you su-”

“I’ll be fine. Please?”

A steaming bowl of bubbling and aromatic curry would make it’s way to our table no more than 10 minutes later.

Paneer tikka masala is an (inter)national treasure. Created in India during the time of the Mughal Dynasty (between the 16th and 18th centuries), paneer tikka masala is a household staple for Indian families across the world. With cubes of soft, marinated paneer floating in a spiced cream gravy, this dish brings a sense of warmth and comfort to anyone lucky enough to come across it. Except me.

To clarify: As a child, paneer tikka masala was one of the biggest sources of my
livelihood. Whenever we went out to a restaurant, my mouth would start to salivate just seeing it written on the menu. But in the past few years, I found out something about myself. Something dark and terrible. Something I couldn’t imagine even in my most horrible nightmares.

It was just another school day and after the longest six hours I had ever experienced, I was finally on my way home. I wanted nothing more than to eat a warm bowl of paneer tikka masala and fall asleep in my bed. Barely able to keep my eyes open, I somehow stumbled my way into my room with a large cup held in my hand. After finally burrowing myself into my blankets, I took a bite of paneer and let out a sigh of contentment. I downed the rest of it in 10 seconds flat. Then I squeezed myself into a corner in my bed and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

But as a few minutes passed, I started tossing and turning in discomfort. My stomach was
churning and I was feeling a pain I had never felt before. My discomfort turned into agony and I soon became panicked. What was wrong with me?? It can’t be that time of the month. It’s too soon. Of course I had that one brief moment of irrational panic. Am I pregnant?!? Shut up brain,
You’re going to be a virgin until the day you die.
But I still didn’t have an explanation for what it actually was. Maybe it’s anxiety. Maybe it’s appendicitis. Or maybe...

I was lactose intolerant.

I think I just didn’t want to accept it at first. I continued to eat paneer tikka masala and drink coffee no matter how much they hurt me. Because how could I just stop? Paneer tikka masala was such an important part of my life. It was something that connected me to my culture
and to my family. It was a recipe I could perfect and pass down for generations. So how could I
just let it go?

All day, every day, I mulled over my situation. Then one day, I finally built up the courage to face it. Another school day ended, and I practically ran back home (not really- I have
the athleticism of a leaf). I made myself a bowl of paneer tikka masala and just sat there staring at it. I felt a dragging sensation in the pit of my stomach. Distress. Despair. Slowly, I wrapped my hands around the spoon and let the cold from the metal seep into my skin. I shivered. Goosebumps rapidly appeared. My heart beat faster and faster and faster until it felt like it would explode right out of my chest. I lifted the spoon to my mouth.

Sip. Sip. Sip.

I sat there for a minute. Nothing happened. My heart rate slowed a little. I was wrong about this right? I had to be. I let out a little laugh of relief and I can tell you that I had never felt as relieved as I did in that instant. I got up from the table walked up to my room to begin my homework. A wide grin was plastered on my face.

No more than 3 minutes in, I began shifting in discomfort as I felt a dull pain in my stomach. Yet another 3 minutes passed and I noticed myself shifting positions again and all the blood rushed from my head and my hands went cold. It was real. This was actually happening.


I was lactose intolerant.

I would never eat dairy again.

I would never have paneer tikka masala again.

What would happen now? Would this huge connection to my culture and my family just disappear?

My worst enemy ended up being me. But thankfully, being lactose intolerant didn’t mean the end of my world. I discovered lactaid pills which allowed me to continue my dairy-filled diet (and maintain my sanity along with it). I realized how lucky I was. Because not everyone gets a second chance like I did. I am still able to order steaming bowls of paneer tikka masala whenever I go out. I am still able to pass down my perfected recipe for the generations to come. And most importantly, I am still able to maintain one of my most important connections to my culture and not lose a big part of who I am.

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