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Raat Akeli Hai

I like the songs of frogs and whisper of crickets, especially in films. Raat Akeli Hai is full of these sounds. My ears were sharper than the poke of a single stray hair hanging by the shoulder.

In DC, where we stayed at Georgetown University, the cicadas kept me smiling. I walked around the campus, fighting a mild slew of loneliness but the crickets kept me independent and helped me gaze outside instead of inside. It’s why I like watching films too.

It’s a delight to watch Nawaz on screen. He brings the sort of sharp deliberation to every pause so that you are forced to never leave his face. His face is a moment.

Here are some scenes that made me giggle:

  1. (Nawaz and friend at a restaurant ordering food) Nawaz says no to chowmein and orders fried rice because chowmein reminds him of worms. This offends his friend and they have a tiff. Despite his refusal, chowmein has somehow landed on their table which Nawaz, like the grumpy husband that he is, refuses to eat. I seem to not just tolerate but also like men on screen only when they perform such coupledom.
  2. Nawaz has an even funnier relationship with his mother who is looking for a wife for him. She doesn’t seem to mind the women he minds because he is a man baby she knows mostly ignores.
  3. My favourite anecdote was Nawaz complaining about his name (Jatil Yadav) which was apparently the result of a spelling mistake his mother made when she was trying to spell Jatin.
  4. How he hides flattened tubes of fair & lovely behind the mirror.

There are ample Uttar Pradesh shots in the film. Lots of Kanpur and Jajmau. And this is more reason to watch any film – roads, gallis, rain, and sky.

My one serious grouse with the film is its glaring absence of the notorious police-boots sounds. The only good thing about the Bollywood-cop films were the sexy kitchkitch sounds those boots made. It’s also why I still enjoy watching 90’s Kannada kalla-police films.

But that was forgiven and forgotten when I had a Jhilmil moment with a scene showing Babasaheb’s portrait in the police station. It was strategically and predictably placed next to Gandhi’s (barf) and Modi’s (double barf) portraits.

There were various references to caste, some flung around carelessly – others making an attempt to go somewhere but holding back noticeably. I will come back to it when I know what to do with it. For now, all I wanted to say is this is how a film gathered around my evening yesterday.

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In Between

Cielo Drive, Didion, & Dawn

I have been obsessed with the Cielo drive murders. It began one ordinary morning three days ago, when I was minding my own business by not paying any attention to deadlines. I was watching Didion again with my breakfast and we got to the point where she describes sitting in the pool when news of The Manson murders reached her. 

The 60s ended for her with these murders, she says. And for the first time in the many times I’ve watched the documentary, I felt compelled to dig into the murders. The thing with culture, contrary to what I believed all this while is that it is sometimes as alien to the person in it, as it is to someone outside. That was the point of  ‘the center will not hold’

Why and how – what kind of dark instinct could cause someone to drive to a celebrity’s house and murder a pregnant woman and her friends? But it didn’t occur to me that everyone who heard it in 1969 found it just as confusing as I did in 2020 hearing about it in my Bgudi home.

When I first watched it, many things about the documentary didn’t make sense to me. And I assumed someone who was born and brought up in America might find it easier to understand. Three days ago, I realised that even Didion wasn’t clear about what the hell was going on. Of the many things that I found puzzling was why strangers lived with one another in big mansions at Hollywood. Firstly, I thought only film stars lived there. Secondly, wasn’t it weird for married people with a child to have loud musicians over at their house all the time? And just what in the world did Didion mean when she said they had no idea who was sleeping at their house of 28 bedrooms?

Turns out she was just as lost as I am about the whole thing. She was just moving with things and when they got unbearable (drugs on her child’s bedroom floor) – she wanted normalcy, silence, order.

I can’t believe there’s the slightest chance that I might have driven past the Cielo Drive last year at L.A. I am wildly mad at myself for not having been in the mind space to absorb the city as deep as I know I have the capacity to.

Like one waste body, I was thinking constantly of internal group politics. Gahhhhh. Why does it always happen that I don’t know how to make friends and if I do, I don’t know how to keep them, and if I can’t, I don’t know how to still have the time of my fucking life? I want too much. I still think it would have been perfect to have found my soul mate in LA with whom I could’ve walked its slopy streets, drank its orange sun with some tall drinks, and talked endlessly about women and writing and stories and love.

I spent the last two days watching one film after another on the Manson murders, watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which I found funny and very well-done. Everything from the loud, wet plop that I came to look forward to with delightful anticipation every time Brad Pitt emptied the can of dog food onto a plate — to the conversation DiCaprio has with the intimidating little girl who tells him ‘And if I can be a tiny bit better, I want to be’ which became my motto for the night — I loved.

I can never understand what the fuck people mean when they say things like ‘didn’t reach expectations’ or ‘overrated’ or ‘hyped’ – Why do you think it’s about you? And why the insistence to measure everything watched, heard, and read in a system of numbers and ratings? Doesn’t your body watch the film along with you? Even in the most dabba film in the history of the world, you can’t find a scene that reached out to you, and held your attention?

When you say something is ‘so overhyped, it scares you to watch/read it’ – you are saying that you value other people’s judgements over yours and your body’s so much – that you don’t think you can muster the capacity to allow room for art to stand on its own with you.

When did we become bigger than art? Who are these important people who can make room for the hype to reach them but not the films and books? Pah. Self-importance is yet another prized Savarna possession. The Avarna relationship to art on the other hand is far more reliable. It’s you – your body – your eyes- and whatever it is you are breathing in. That is all. In the arms of an Avarna romantic, hype dies, math dies, and so does the English-medium love for logic and neatness.

This doesn’t mean you force yourself to feel and love everything you watch and read (although I don’t see the problem with that). No no. It means you believe in the capacity of even the most badly done film or play or book to have its moments. Didion said it best – “Let me lay it on the line: I like movies, and approach them with a tolerance so fond that it will possibly strike you as simple-minded. To engage my glazed attention a movie need be no classic of its kind, need be neither L’Avventura or Red River, neither Casablanca nor Citizen Kane; I ask only that it have its moments.”

Spent the day reading and dreaming about Dawn Powell. Her diary entries are just thrilling as her short stories. And I am feeling delicious feelings in my stomach about stalking yet another writer and eating her words inside out.

Read a few bits from Didion’s The White Album and am in awe of how her mind is what I am actually reading when I am reading her – every jump, map, note, flutter is readily available. How it would be to own her mind! Reminds me of a Borges short story called ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ in which various people come to own Shakespeare’s memory in the hope of being able to write like him, they can’t and keep looking for ways to get rid of it. Lol.

Jamaica Kincaid is yet another writer giving me butterflies. This story called Figures in the distance blew me away. A young girl is obsessed with death and tells the story of each dead body she hears and dreams about. Her mother’s hands catch dying people all the time and the girl grows more and more curious.

Storytelling becomes so much more intimate when a woman reads out another woman’s story, and a woman watering plants, and adjusting the phone tucked into her waist, listens to it and believes that it’s all she wants to do for the rest of her life.

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In Between

For tonight, Mary Oliver

Needed to read this today to be grateful for words, and a tomorrow where these words will still be here, sitting like always, and I can give them a stir and make them do things for me.

Forty Years by Mary Oliver

for forty years
the sheets of white paper have
passed under my hands and I have tried
    to improve their peaceful

emptiness putting down
little curls little shafts
of letters words
    little flames leaping

not one page
was less to me than fascinating
discursive full of cadence
    its pale nerves hiding

in the curves of the Qs
behind the soldierly Hs
in the webbed feet of the Ws
    forty years

and again this morning as always
I am stopped as the world comes back
wet and beautiful I am thinking
    that language

is not even a river
is not a tree is not a green field
is not even a black ant traveling
    briskly modestly

from day to day from one
golden page to another.

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In Between

Stupid

Oh how stupid I’ve been. Life itself is a distraction. It distracts me from living. So much of what I do is a response. To be better, to be good, to make it count. What kind of a soulless way to live is that? So far I’ve felt most alive when I don’t respond to anything, especially time. I’ve felt alive when I am learning, when I’m watering plants and listening to short stories, when I am discovering someone’s reading life, when I feel the itch to write & succumb to it wholeheartedly, full-bodily, beautifully – when I am hardly aware of time.

This beautiful blog reminded me that I am not really living. Why do I even bother doing anything that is not living? For now, this means giving myself permission to be swallowed by books and being unwilling to part with time to do anything else. Gahhh

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Caste Food In Between

D for Desire

It’s yellow like the amrutanjan yellow, the smell tiptoeing around your nose when you are asleep. Gone by morning like the memory of a headache.

It’s not neat like the aligned rows of corn that tempts eaters to do two things at once. One, bite off just a kernel at a time, and two – leave a gash open in its middle, showing the loud wound of oval teeth marks. There is ease in eating corn out of a cup but the spoon always gets in between – never enough to feel the fullness of it in the mouth.

Sometimes desire is a glorious unexpected purple, the kind that bursts out of colorless colliding pies in Tom and Jerry. Most other times it’s a coriander green. The kind that traps early morning sunlight and never lets it go. The kind that romances with a blob of water droplet, again -never letting go, again almost going – like lendi. 

It is wanting human intimacy to match with the pleasure of eating mangoes in white petticoats and lying on the floor for hours after, playing with the afternoon sun weaving tangible window patterns made of gold threads.

It’s permanently wondering if things would have been different if you weren’t Dalit, if there would be a ruthless admission of love and desire for you if you weren’t Dalit, if the words fuck you would’ve come to you a lot easier if you weren’t Dalit. It is wondering if Dalit anger is preferred over Dalit desire.

I googled ‘Dalit Desire’ & found a bunch of “research-based” essays, some obviously written by Savarna academics. I giggled. First they hijacked pain, now pleasure. Is it research when skill is put above experience, pain above pleasure, discomfort above desire, and community above individual?

Last year, I put together a syllabus on Resisting Caste & made a conscious decision to leave out all research-based essays, those serious, intellectual, Savarna- academic ones that play Word-Olympics with caste, those that are written in such complicated language, that even caste will begin to feel like it exists only in theory. No wonder people continue to think that caste isn’t alive anymore.

I put in experience, thoughts, dilemmas, insecurities, fear, love & decided that theory will come nowhere near my classroom. But I forgot that at a certain point in their lives, students are made to feel that if they don’t know theory, they are the Jon Snows of English academia. What to do then? How to teach? 

Ambedkar approached a lot of what he wrote on caste with the seriousness & precision of a scientist even though he had lived experience to begin with. But he knew that for his work to be taken seriously, he was going to need something stronger than experience, something that can shut people up. Merit. Scholarship. Poetry. There is a reason why I can read his works like they were love letters. Because he wrote with the passion of a poet.

Nothing is as powerful as a Dalit child reading Ambedkar for the first time. It fills her body with an energy that is both thirsty and insatiable. Like a desire to finally start living.

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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.

 

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M for Merit

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That’s all.

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O for Onion

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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. 

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P for Pleasure

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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.

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U for Uppitu

In school, they called it concrete for the gravel-like mixture taste it left behind. In my dabbas, it stuck stubbornly in a way I imagined only rice had the authority to. Often, I had to plunge the spoon into its middle & make a cave to be able to get in. But such fake stubbornness – for in my mouth, it came apart like things that are not meant to come apart. This was followed by a fascination with the way in which my parents ate everything, especially idlis & uppitu.

When I made faces at cold, spongy idlis, Appa would say ‘Idli tinakke punya maadirbeku (you should have done some virtue in life to eat idlis) And Amma, in the hope that I’d perhaps eat everything if it was made more tasteless, began mixing everything with curd, even uppitu.

Appa & Ajji ate it with a half-cut lemon sitting sharply on their plates. They squeezed the life out of it, its juice never enough so there would always be more lemons waiting. And I, watching – never tired of imagining the sizzle it would leave on the tongue, never gathered courage to taste it. I don’t know when in my damn adulthood I fell in love with uppitu. My guess is that I love the process of oggarane (Acclimatization in English it seems avar janmak isht benki haaka) so much that I have grown to like everything that comes out of it.

I now like to take it off the stove when it is still mushy & the water still bubbling, popping, threatening. I like its semi-solidity in the plate when it falls with a plop. The spice is never gentle, and the bele – the only crunchy thing in this wildly hot mess – comes & goes consistently, while the tomato slips itself quietly, leaving its taste somewhere. Soon, I was submitting it to cold buttermilk topped excessively with coriander. And lemon, which I now realise is the true culprit. It rescues uppitu when left on the stove for too long and adds the most joyous sting if eaten when still mushy.

It taught me to give things a chance & I continue to find it strange that the most boring vegetarian breakfast item also taught me to never judge a dabba by the hisses it produces in Brahmin schoolmates.