J for Jabya

Jabya smiling, Jabya laughing, Jabya crying, Jabya studying, Jabya singing – is a boy in love. Jabya doing homework is Jabya writing Shalu’s name on the slate. Jabya, in uniform, is Jabya dreaming of wearing t-shirt & jeans some day. Jabya who makes his friend wait while he combs his hair, who rubs powder on his face, powder dropped carefully from a paper is a boy next to whom nobody sits with in school. Jabya who reminds me of a student who loves to dance, Jabya who reminds me of my brother who pushes his hair back when nervous, is a boy who has to hide himself so he can watch the girl he loves & smile.

Jabya climbing up trees with his friend to catch a black sparrow that will bring him luck & love, is young Ambedkar climbing up trees to read. Jabya’s friend who doesn’t know how to climb down trees is young Ambedkar jumping down trees. Jabya at Aashiqui cycle mart is Jabya in love. Jabya pulled away from Aashiqui cycle mart to remove a piglet from the ditch is Jabya not allowed to remain in love. Jabya who has nightmares of that piglet when he sleeps is Jabya who chases a black sparrow every morning so he can convince himself that he is not the pig that Shalu has to flee from. 

Jabya who cycles out of the village to sell ice lollies is Jabya standing outside a Van Heusen billboard in town, staring at the white man’s sharp nose & feeling his own flat nose. Jabya dancing on Chankya’s shoulders is Jabya closest to Shalu who is watching from above, even if momentarily. Jabya’s Chankya is a man who saves Jabya without even letting him know that he was in danger all this while. Chankya, who guides Jabya to remain alive, who sets him to chase a black sparrow, distracting him, even if momentarily, from the horror of this impossible love.

Jabya chasing pigs is Jabya hiding behind the walls, hiding from school, hiding from classmates, hiding from Shalu. Jabya still inches away from the black sparrow is Jabya never losing hope. Jabya, inches away from catching the pig, Jabya standing still for the national anthem is a slap on your face, my face, and this fucking country’s face.

Jabya pelting stones at the pig is Jabya learning how to pick up the stone differently. Jabya has picked up stones to catch the black sparrow before but he always did it out of love. Jabya carrying the pig in front of his school walls where Ambedkar, Savitrimai, & Jotiba look on grimly is the image we need to remember everyday. Jabya picking up the stone in the end, is Jabya finally picking it up for himself. Jabya throwing the stone at the camera is throwing the stone at you. Manjule’s slap for you, for me.

 

 

K for Konkani – K for Kannada

Children born of bilingual marriages occupy a strange position in schools, especially as subjects of raised-eyebrow discussions between teachers. But we are gifted in a way that the xeroxed products of Brahmanical endogamy can never understand. Our bodies are Ambedkar’s dream realised – it’s here that we have mixed & also carry a mixture of everything, language especially. I was born out of Konkani’s hip & Kannada’s belly. It is my tragicomedy that I am sitting here now with my mouth open like a piranha trying to capture English.

Years ago on a group tour, a family we were traveling with made an astounding observation about us that continues to make Amma & Appa howl with laughter. They’d taken one look at me, my sister & brother & declared very tragically ‘father’s nose & mother’s complexion not one of them has inherited’

Indeed. The tip of Appa’s nose glistens like the eye of the needle. My nose is a potato that no one wants to buy. For Amma’s people, Appa’s nose is his most remarkable feature, almost absolving him for being dark. Amma’s vanilla-drops complexion induced everlasting jealousy in Appa’s people. It is believed that it absolved her of dowry. I once heard the expression “My mother is milk & father, decoction” in a Tamizh film & felt beautifully represented. Appa said thoo nim ajji pinda & walked off.

When I was young, I woefully noticed that the only part of my body to match Amma’s complexion was the thigh so, naturally, it became the most Konkani part of my body. And only my elbow is as sharp as Appa’s nose so, naturally, I speak Kannada from my elbows. But in his own body, Appa made more than enough room to hug Konkani. He learnt it out of love for his wife & for us. But Amma says that even after 32 years of marriage, he hasn’t learnt to speak it well. 

When we travel to North India, which his body firmly cancels, we get unlimited entertainment from watching him attempt a cocktail of Hindi, Kannada, and konkani. In a restaurant where they served us sweet sambar(!), he hollered at the manager “Yey thoo, sambar main bella dala hai kya?” (Have you drowned jaggery in this sambar?)

He is as right wing as your next-door uncle, but Appa’s love for people has the capacity to translate into a tolerance for languages that he doesn’t speak. And this is also what saves him from being extravagantly right wing. In a way, being Dalit has saved him from being intolerant. His love for Vadivelu is an example. Somehow his anger with Tamizh has never interfered with his daily Vadivelu comedy time on YouTube. He doesn’t watch half as many films as he watches in Tamizh. As for me, Konkani is where I’m most naked & Kannada is where I’m most vulgar. I get my thoos from Appa, & I get my capacity for sex from Non-GSB Konkani.

 

L for Los Angeles

As young children having recently moved to Bangalore in 1999, my cousins & I were fascinated with the Bangalore sky. It seemed like it was full of possibilities in a way we hadn’t learned to look for in other cities that we’d lived in. It was here that we fully grasped the idea of an aeroplane. It was also the time when an uncle had moved to America for a job, the first one to go abroad in our family. And everytime we heard a plane going over, we’d run to the terrace to scream his name out loud & say byeeee, even months after his departure. We never got tired of believing that he could see us from up there.

Adichie observes in Americanah that the image of America as a country like any other, with states & borders never seems to solidify in our heads. If one is going to the US, they are going to America – not Boston or LA or New York. So when I was accepted for a one month internship program at Seattle University, I didn’t register the Seattle bit until I was physically there. What did I know – I’d only packed my suitcase to go to America. As part of the scholarship, we were taken to Los Angeles, San Francisco, & Washington D.C. It hits me only now as I am writing this, that it really was as great as it sounds.

In films, Los Angeles was where Jackie Chan & Chris Tucker drove each other mad in Rush Hour. They ate something called Camel’s Hump in China Town, fought about whose dad was a better policeman, & danced to Edwin Starr’s War. 

In The Holiday, Los Angeles became Iris’ escape. Before LA, she was weepy & unhappy. In LA, she finds what is called ‘gumption’ & falls beautifully out of love with an asshole. I wanted to find my gumption too. And even if Hollywood films had shown me Los Angeles as somehow less appealing than New York, I was most curious about why white women were always running away to Los Angeles when New York or wherever else became unbearable. I was convinced of this when Joan Didion did the same.

Screenshot_20200422-104333_Instagram

None of this was playing in my mind when I landed in LA though. I was distracted by my inability to touch the city. It wasn’t simply a question of size – in how big LA was & how small I – or perhaps it was. Los Angeles was like a hippogriff that I was afraid of not being able to pet on my own & certainly not in any grand way. This left me feeling crippled in part by guilt because I wasn’t doing a good job of being by myself, & in part by a maddening desire for female friendship. After all, the light & sky in LA was perfect for a lifelong female friendship. I needed her badly – someone to go on long walks, drink wine, eat crabs, watch films, and laugh loudly with.

We were a team of 21 & had pretty much settled in. At lunch that day, stuffing my face with hot seafood egg rice & cold beer at Grand Central Market, I decided I’d make more of an effort to be less afraid of the city. It wasn’t going to be easy – we had come across stories of people being mugged, shot at, and worse.

Even so, our first night in LA, a few friends & I walked to Clifton’s Republic in downtown LA. The decor was bewildering. There were huge taxidermied animals staring at us from corners, sudden upsurges of trees & shrubs from floors & walls, a 3-storied redwood tree (which I later found out was fake) shot straight up from the ground floor, and oddly placed furniture which made it difficult to have conversation. The deafening music didn’t help.

My friend, Esra from Turkey ran up the stairs because she sensed a whole other kind of music coming from the floor above. We followed her to see the craziest ballroom dance floor where people were dancing wildly. It was like a scene from a Jazz film – although I don’t know what that is. A bunch of musicians led by a young singer were performing in one corner, & in another, a small bar was serving classic cocktails. My friend, Simão from Portugal & I had an old fashioned, & then another, & then another, until we lost count.

I’d never heard live music like this before. My body began humming & my legs wouldn’t stop moving. Esra & I walked slowly to the dance floor like cats, & looked around. We were surrounded by couples & the more I watched them dance in sync, the more conscious I became but Esra who always sings her own tune was saying fuck you to people so delightfully, I stopped caring too. I saw only one gay couple on the floor who moved boisterously. On the other side, a woman wearing a retro yellow dress danced with a man like in La La land.

When it was time to leave, we didn’t want to leave even if our bodies had shut down hours ago. The trouble was that none of us had any memory of how we’d gotten in. We couldn’t find the exit.The place had grown arms of floor after floor. It had swallowed us in & it looked like we were in 5 different shooting locations at the same time. 

One floor had a wilder party going on with rock music. Esra & I needed to use the loo & wandered into a Japanese Tea Room with zen music playing in the background, & people chit chatting calmly. We hurried out because we wanted to check if we were still in the same place. By the time we located the exit, we’d seen two more rooms with equally absurd things happening. 

It was 1 am. We stopped for some shawarma & trotted back to our hotel.

The next day, we went to see the Hollywood sign – perhaps the only touristy place we visited in LA, and I couldn’t stop smiling because the previous night, I’d stolen a lot from the city when it wasn’t looking. Big cities like LA can only be petted when it wasn’t looking directly at us.

That evening, we went to The Museum of Jurassic Technology – the strangest museum I’d ever been to. It curated memory & forgetting. And much like Clifton’s Republic – this was a cabinet of curiosities. One showcase featured a plate of Madeleines accompanied by Marcel Proust’s literature about the same. Another, a video explanation on the theory of forgetting, another – dead baby clothes, & diseased fingernails.

On the topmost floor, there was a tea room. A woman emerged from nowhere & asked if I wanted tea. I nodded furiously. She gave me black tea with lemon in a small vintage cup. I took it outside on the terrace, where there were doves, plants, & a small boy happily chasing the doves.

An old man sitting on the stone bench was playing the Nyckelharpa (a Swedish folk instrument) while a massive dog looked on. The water from the fountain continued rising & falling. Esra & I sat, listened, & wept silently. Something happens to people inside this museum. Something had happened to Esra & me. We promised each other that we’d never try to understand it. 

When we went back home, we told each other we’d try to recreate what we felt there. We called it The Museum Moment. During the last week of our stay in America, Esra & I returned to The Museum Moment over & over again – each time weeping our hearts out.

Later that night, they took us to a Karaoke bar & egged on by what had happened at the museum & how much of the city I had managed to pocket, I braved singing Rasputin- a song I’d first listened to back when our TV at home had a new music channel where people could phone them up to request songs.

That was the first & only time I’d actively listened to English songs and Rasputin was the only song my mother had recognized & I was surprised because she had never shown any interest in English songs before. She said it was a famous song in her college. I don’t know who requested Rasputin but it always came at the same time each day, & somehow that night in LA, in that dark room full of strangers who were quickly becoming more than that, I found the gumption to sing Rasputin badly & dance madly.

Next morning, when we discussed how crazy the night had been, someone made it a point to say that my song had been too long. I smiled. Normally, I’d have been bothered by how unnecessary the comment was but like Iris, I had recently acquired gumption so I didn’t have to care.

On the last day, I went to the LA Public Library where Octavia Butler wrote often. I had half a mind to go begging for directions from anyone I saw — ‘Kind person, please take me to the table where Octavia Butler wrote’

Walking aimlessly, I reached a long hall with bookshelves & writing tables. At the end of the hall to the left, where there was most light, I saw a bunch of small tables with lamps. I picked a random table, decided this must be where she wrote, plonked my ass in the chair, pulled out my journal & wrote in big, bold letters, ‘OCTAVIA BUTLER WAS HEREEE’

I’d just read Parable of the Sower so the whole thing was supremely real. It was a perfect day made even more perfect when at the library gift shop, I found a Joan Didion tote bag that was obviously made for me.

Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would one day walk the streets of Los Angeles in motherfucking America & tell myself ‘Joan Didion must have walked here’

I’d always dreamed of beginning a conversation with the line, ‘So when I was in LA five years ago…’ & had no idea how the rest of that sentence would go because I only cared about the first part. I am now thrilled beyond measure that I can finally say ‘So when I was in LA…’ & feel assured that the second half of that sentence will be as crazy as the first. I just have to wait for five years now.

When you give hunger food, it will swallow it whole with everything it has. It’s what my people do when we are given an opportunity. It’s what my father does with mutton chops – he chews & sucks it inside-out until it’s bone dry.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

N for Nuance

EVd9Hg3U4AI11Pp
Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter

(Nuance defined as: noticing a very slight difference in meaning or someone’s feelings that is not usually very obvious)

Bole toh, if a Savarna journalist accuses you, a Dalit writer – of not having nuance, it means that you are not smart enough to look beyond caste. It means that caste is but a mere ‘accident’ in all our lives & it’s not their fault that they were born there, & you were born here. None of us chose it alva? Then why the drama, mama? And if you are not able to look beyond it, then what is the point of education? Of Ambedkar?

Nuance is a quintessential Savarna demand. But sadly, it is not challenging enough for a Dalit writer to do better. Because Savarna nuance is to make all the Dalit people they’ve ever known in their lives stand in an imaginary line & pick the one that appears most authentically Dalit  to them. The darker you are, the poorer you look, the weaker your English is – the better.

If you don’t have these qualities, then sorry – you might be Dalit but you have to unsee caste. In the Savarna scale of imagination, be assured that a dead Dalit is more Dalit than one alive. And if you are alive, well, & kicking – then you shouldn’t be talking caste, bro. You should be working quietly despite it & produce art that is more nuanced & less self-indulgent. 

But bro, if our art & literature is too self-indulgent, it’s not like yours isn’t no? Savarna journalists who win awards for writing about the suffering underprivileged deploy the highest form of self-indulgence. It’s your craft, your merit, your nuance, your sympathy, & your talent against someone who is barely trying to survive.

Jia Tolentino remarks in an essay that sometimes social media allows people to take more comfort in a sense of injury over a sense of freedom. When I read this, I heard the sound of a long, feverish worry being unlocked – the worry that being on social media was like gathering a certain kind of something – an assurance perhaps. That one needed to keep producing an injured self over & over again to maintain it.

Thankfully, Ambedkar had a solution for us long before anyone else did. Because he was a constant learner of things- his passion for violin, gardening, and tea is our freedom. It gives someone like me the backbone to fall in love with someone like Alice Munro. Sadly,  your nuance, and punishment for demanding it from others is Manu Joseph. 

Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter.

 

O for Onion

20200417_161044

In English, I always pause before pronouncing it (Anion or Onion?) I once bought a wooden chopping board because it’s how onions were chopped on cooking shows. Needless to say, the board broke in half & was last seen sitting mutely above the fridge. Ajji sliced the Kannada eerulli sitting on an ಈಳಿಗೆಮಣೆ (elige mane) as gleaming slices of onions fell wordlessly into the wet steel plate under it. Amma chopped the Konkani’s Piyav on a ಲಟ್ಟಣಿಗೆ (Chapati rolling pin) standing by the kitchen slab, the rim of her nightie always touching the floor. 

It’s perhaps among the first few things we learn to cut. Growing up, if you were given onions to cut, it meant that you were inaugurated into a semi-adulthood of sorts. In Jain college, where I studied in 2005, this meant nothing. It was believed that items made of potato(even lays), garlic, & onion weren’t sold in the canteen. Even the man making samosa burgers outside the college sold what were called jain burgers (if they can sell air in chips packets, they can also eat samosas without alu it seems) 

Couple-friends practiced a kind ‘no-onion no-garlic’ pact at lunch if the evening had been brimming with a possibility of kiss. Years ago, an old love had been angry with me for eating onions with my naan & mutton at lunch which caused the evening to no longer brim with anything & I grew wary of eating them outside home.

The Savarna idea that what you eat shouldn’t cause discomfort to others was punctured beautifully at a writing workshop organised by the Dalit Women Fight in Delhi. The buffet had the regular rice, roti, chicken, dal, salad. And I noticed that the only thing that kept getting over & that the waiters had to keep bringing in were onions. It’s the only time I’ve seen anyone eat onions freely in public, and not even as a side to the main but as if it were the only main. I felt immediately at home where Appa suspects anything that isn’t full of onions, and Amma can only eat Maggi with a side of raw onions.

There is as much joy in eating it raw as there is in listening to the sprinkled crunch of its cutting. I imagine it to be the sound of the sandpapery touch of salt. A student once broke into mad laughter even before he’d finished narrating the story of his Kannada speaking friend who was desperate for some onions in his chaat & had hurriedly said ‘bhaiya, thoda pyar dena’ instead of pyaz. 

P for Pleasure

20190629_101313

On the last day of school, before we closed for vacation, I ran after a girl I really liked, patted her on the shoulder & hugged her because I thought we hadn’t said bye properly. I don’t remember if I cried because I was going to miss her or because I wanted her to know I was already missing her. When I walked back home, my body fought to forget how weakly she’d hugged back. And when I imagined the hugs she gave her other friends, I wanted to take mine back.

In college one day, I got terribly sick. The fever had fangs & I was shivering. She gave me her brown sweater which I took home. I didn’t take it off when I lay down. I slept with it & dreamed of her smell. The smell left the day she told me that I was too conscious of marks. I wanted to say ‘so are you’ – but my stomach swallowed the words.

She & I went shopping for bras in Shivajinagar. When we tried them on later that evening, I told myself that this was the only kind of intimacy I ever wanted to know. She taught me how to make masala bhurji. She made milky sweet tea. When we ate KFC chicken, she pinched me for not sucking meat off the bones properly. She once stayed up all night because the boy she was in love with didn’t call. I wanted to go to his house & beat him to a pulp.

She dropped me home after college everyday. She smelled of Lakme peach body lotion & I always caught a whiff of it as I sat behind her on activa. She came home one day to wash her hair because they weren’t letting her wash her hair at home. She was seeing her boy the next day so it was urgent. We stood in my bathroom & as she held her hair down, I sprayed water on it. The droplets fell on her neck & then danced by our naked feet. 

She held me when I wept because I didn’t know how to break up with an old love. She taught me how to use tampons & smiled when I told her I was terrified of them. We once spent an entire day drinking & talking about love, sex, & writing. Later that night, in the lift, we came very close to falling into each other but something held us back.

She wore backless blouses that made my fingers ache. She laughed like 78 parrots fluttering away from tree tops. Her lipstick rarely licked her teeth so I had no excuse to hold her face, pull her towards me, say ‘lipstick’ & wipe it off. One cold evening in Delhi, we wore dresses that tickled our kneecaps & danced to Beedi Jalaile. 

I felt seized by a pleasure that forgot weak hugs, double games, gritted teeth, heteroness & other savarna games. Finally here was a she who wasn’t afraid to fall, more shameless than anyone & didn’t believe in holding back. Later that night, as our toes touched under someone’s blanket, I concluded that no revolution is brighter than Dalit women grabbing pleasure. It is now my own thithi that I was so arrested by the moment, I didn’t do more.