The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2019 – Voyaging the Kitchen

As a child, my fascination with food came from watching appa eat. His temples bobbed in and out, as if a small, writhing organism was inside. Often I’d put my index finger on his temple not knowing what to expect – sometimes I felt a soft, warm dot moving in and out, and sometimes there was just a dull throb.

After many days of watching him eat, I understood that the temple rebelled when he ate non veg, and didn’t when he ate veg.

He’d take a chicken bone and eat out all its meat before tapping it hard on the steel plate. Then he’d suck at the end of the bone and his temples would inhale – exhale.

‘Idu yenu gotta?’ he’d ask each time, and then proceed to explain regardless of whether I said yes or no – about what bone marrow was and how strong it made our body. He said this with purpose.

Liver, bone, marrow were all meant to be consumed – not for their taste or some such rubbish but because they were there on the plate and it made us strong. When Mouma, his vegetarian mother-in-law was around, he frowned when she covered her mouth and nose with the end of her pallu on days amma made fish.

He’d say to no one in particular but loudly enough for her to hear – “Your Sai Baba hides & eats one kilo of chicken, two kilos of mutton, and three kilos of fish every day. Kal nan maga (robber my son).” Mouma would say chee chee and walk out.

***
Years ago in Vaishnodevi, we came down the hill on horseback and appa collapsed out of exhaustion upon reaching the hotel. His sugar had gone very low and I ran to the hotel kitchen to get sweets. When I raced back up, amma was standing over him with a wet towel and he was lying down, his eyes barely open, both hands on the chest. When I walked in, he looked at me mournfully and said ‘If I am ever not around, you have to make sure you give fruits to everyone at home. You have to take care, okay?’

I didn’t find it odd at all because appa’s romance with fruits is legendary. I had once caught him standing next to a Guava plant on our terrace, eating its fruit. He wasn’t plucking it off – he wasn’t even using his hands. He was eating the Guava without touching it – standing on his toes, his hands tied at the back. When he heard me laughing, he turned around and I ran inside to fetch my phone to take his picture.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked me. This is how fruits are meant to be eaten. ‘Keelbardu’ – ‘shouldn’t be plucked’

***
From the very beginning, he was one of us – especially when we watched Tom & Jerry and he smiled like a child everytime Tom opened the fridge and out came cheese, roast chicken, turkey, and sausages. He was also one of us when Amma chased my sister and I around the house for having smuggled Bournvita and Horlicks pudi again. She would barge into the bedroom, only to find bits of horlicks stuck to appa’s moustache. We would roar with laughter and Amma would say Karma and leave us alone.

***
These are only some of the many things I have come to know food by. This is my story. What is yours? Do write and send to barbranaiduprize@gmail.com
Deadline – 31st Jan 2019.

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I have some answers for you

  1. Why are you writing so many ‘Dalit- Dalit’ things these days?
screener tv
Gif credits: Screener tv

While “I’ll write what I want” is generally a good response to stick with– I’m going to explain this to you with love, (because you seem like you have the potential to be a better person) and also with swalpa sarcasm (because I cannot able to control)

See for the longest time no? I had no idea why people were behaving the way they did with me:

  • why their tone changed from respectful (while talking to someone standing right next to me) to patronizing (the moment they noticed me)
  • why they thought that people were just being polite to me when they said they liked my blog (since there’s no possible way my blog could be nice)
  • why they were obsessed with how I ‘got to’ hang out with good looking intellectual people since obviously I don’t have the credentials to hang out with good-looking intellectual people at K or anywhere else
  • why they thought that the only way I was getting published was because people were doing me favors
  • why Savarna students thought/and continue to think that they have absolutely nothing to learn from me (this is getting too boring to deal with. I mean swalpa originality should be there even in Savarna-ness no? Too much to ask?)
  • why they thought it’s ok to tell me that they ‘don’t mind’ editing my writing (even if they don’t have the experience with either editing or writing) – even if they are just a Brahmin engineer with good English and a better internet connection.
Gifer
ZIZEK!!!  Gif credits: Gifer

It didn’t occur to me then to say fuck off. I thought they were right. So I spent some time doubting myself – maybe I really hadn’t earned my NET, maybe I really am not qualified to teach, maybe I’ll never be a good writer.

All of this was laid to rest when a friend made me see caste in all of this. After that I couldn’t see it any other way.

When Marquez read the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he fell off the bed. He didn’t know that people were allowed to lie in stories. AM says that that moment was as though someone had given Marquez permission to write.

book manial
Gif credits: Book Manial

AM himself has been the biggest permission to me – to stop whining and start writing.

(A man who could sit in a library, and read through the day, however, sounded like a more realisable ideal of freedom)

When this permission appeared, my relationship with writing changed. Until that point and sometimes even now, writing was torture because my sentences didn’t sound beautiful, my control over structure was a useless battle, and the Savarna reader in my head wouldn’t stop shrugging, grunting and yawning.

I have often told Christina that reading her feels like a hundred dams are breaking inside me. It’s because reading her feels like permission to shoot the Savarna reader in my head. After the shots were fired, my writing relaxed. It took a deep breath and decided that it just has to write.

So, dear friend – when I finally feel like I have the permission to write, why won’t I? It’s definitely not new. I have been writing ‘Dalit-Dalit’ things for sometime now. Read my old blog-posts if you haven’t already 🙂

    2.  Will you ever write about ‘normal things’?

Credits: gfycat
Gig Credits: gfycat

It won’t seem normal enough to you because for you – entitlement is probably normal.

Lol. Ok see. I was on a panel earlier this year – it was about Savarna control over documentaries. There were a bunch of snooty Savarna peeps who sat in the first few rows and rolled their eyes because apparently the panel was about a “serious topic” and I was not being serious or political enough.

When I asked the panelists if they thought that being Dalit meant that we could only write about political things that concern Dalits — Thank god for Gee, because he said – “I want to see a Dalit writer write about romance and food. I want to see a Dalit director make horror films”

If only we had some of my (DBA) people in the audience, I’m sure there would have been claps and hoots and whistles and pelvic thrusts (I am thinking about my lovely sisters from the writing workshop here)

Gif credits: out.com
Gif credits: out.com

So basically – I want to write about everything. I want to write about farmers, I want to write about Mayawati, I want to write about Ranveer Singh, I want to write about Joan Didion, I want to write about Siddalingaiah, I want to write about Koffee with Karan, I want to write about Bollywood films and weddings, I want to write about fashion, travel, food, cows, and birds. I want to see my short stories get published in Caravan, Round Table, Dalit Camera, Granta, fucking New Yorker even. Because I want to be a good writer. Because I don’t want to stop learning, ever. Ever.

  3. How can you write about Koffee with Karan and about being Dalit at the same time?

Via Rajesh Rajamani
Via Rajesh Rajamani

Arre. Let me ask you a question – how many Dalit people do you know? And how many Dalit writers do you know who write about popular culture?

Don’t Dalit people watch TV? Shouldn’t they also watch Koffee with Karan like you secretly do (under the covers)? Don’t Dalit people go to pubs? Don’t we like drinking? Don’t we like wearing nice clothes?

And please don’t give me this political-volitical nonsense. I have seen enough Savarna boys in college who suddenly become Angry Savarna Boys. Then they obviously read Das Kapital in sports fields (because everywhere else is too mainstream), then they talk about philosophy and Marx — only to go get an MA and join some Infosys or Accenture.

So, excuse me for not taking you seriously.

giphy
From giphy.com

   4. So what is the point of all this?

Basically it’s this – Ambedkar once told me to tell you – I can’t stop being Dalit just because you are casteless, macha. So stop being an ass.

tenor
Gif Credits: tenor

       ****

A room of my own

Today I am thinking about Virginia Woolf and how old I was when I first heard ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’

I wonder if I understood what she meant when I heard it at 22. I must have smiled like I smile when I hear nice things. But this morning I felt the force of her words and didn’t smile.

Was she talking to women who don’t own their time? If you are a 30- year- old Indian woman, living with your parents and resisting marriage – you definitely don’t own your time. It is eaten up whole on mornings when news of cousins getting married or having babies arrives like a bagful of steel dropped by huge birds on your dining table. They come with a crash. Then the birds take off and there is dust everywhere.

On quieter mornings, there is dust inside me. I have to soothe them by reaching into my body and ironing them with my hands. Reading ‘To the Lighthouse’ felt like that.

A room of my own – in my parent’s house- no matter how much I make it mine by decorating it with pretty fairy lights, and pictures of women reading and writing, and a picture of Adichie saying strong things that tear themselves out of the frame and land angrily on my table, a picture of Marquez smiling into the corners of his laughing eyes, and a picture of Ambedkar telling me to be at work when I am at work – is still not mine. This room is not my own.

It belongs to the crashing sound of vessels in the kitchen, the red dot of my mother’s silence, the anger of my father’s tissue-white pajamas, and the sounds that could have been – if like they had told me – I was married by now and had babies.

***

I know I will have a room of my own one day. I know it’s why I was born. It will have peeling yellow walls and a kettle that makes flurry noise when it’s ready. It will open out to a terrace where the evening birds come to drink water and the morning sun comes to dry clothes. The nearby Adhan will remind me of something – home perhaps. And this is my fear – that when I finally have a room of my own – I will miss the sounds of the room that were not my own.

That I will miss the hiss of the pressure cooker, the well-shaped hole of my father’s yawns, the eyelashes of my mother’s sighs, the heaviness of my brother’s footsteps when he goes to open the front door, and the socks that my sister wears and unwears.

But then – I tell myself – I will always miss these sounds, no matter where I am. I will probably miss them more if I’m waking up next to a husband every morning.

At least – in a room of my own with peeling yellow walls – I will wake up alone and crush cardamom pods loudly for my chai, without worrying that I am waking anybody else.

dd

One step at a time

Mouma left today and I spent the entire day feeling afraid. I have been avoiding writing.  Not that I was ever writing like a mofo. But I am more afraid of writing now than I ever was. Maybe because I am afraid of writing That Story –  the only story I have ever cared about. It doesn’t make sense to put so much pressure on one story. But if I am going to do it – I might as well just shut up and do it.

I am afraid it won’t be pretty – that its words won’t be beautiful like I want them to be. But after struggling with myself for what seems like a month – I have finally decided to give in. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just needs to be written.

Found this by accident today and it has made me see whom I am writing for.

Events from the last two days have made the audience in my head clearer. These tweets by Christina Mimi, and Darde have made me rethink a lot of things about my people, my world and the annoying Savarna reader in my head whose shadow I seem to be living in. I should probably kill her and start writing. Mouma would do that. Even though the only thing she wants right now is for me to be married – _ –

This resting period taught me some interesting things –  I had to learn how to walk all over again. My first step post – surgery was a monumental one. I had been panicking – wondering if I could ever walk normally again. But all I had to do was take it slow – one step at a time. Now, if only I can do that with my writing then all will be well.

 

The one where Gabito screws me over again

I won’t lie. Even when I was imagining my grand reading plan for the 2 month long break, I didn’t believe it, which is why I must have imagined it in lovely colors like the orange of a Bangalore evening and the red of Mangalore mud. Even so, a girl can hope. Especially a girl who is soon going to walk with a cane, Dr. House style.

I was swallowed by the vortex of watching shit after shit on Netflix. I succumbed beautifully. When guilt finally arrived, it was too late. I had to attend to serious work shining with deadlines and all.

Often good things happen when I do serious work. The most important of them all is that I crave absent-mindedness for a bit so I take a break, go to Facebook, and see what shit I was doing in 2008, 2012, 2014. And I find things that make me giggle, make me put my fist in the mouth and bite, make me howl with laughter, and rarely something that will make me wonder – hey why haven’t I seen this before, what’s wrong with me?

Today was one such day. I wish every day is like this. I curse the days when I am not easily moved by wanting to be moved.

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I watched this interview today and got some orange and red back in my life. It’s Gabito’s. He’s saying nice things about writing. Basically things that make me wonder what is stopping me from writing. Why can’t I shut up and write? I also realized why I’m wildly attracted to him. When he was talking, I couldn’t stop watching his face. I imagined him in bed. And concluded that he’ll be damn good. Cuddling included.

Ok shy is coming. This is what he said:

“Writing fiction is like hypnosis. You must hypnotize the reader so he only thinks about the story he’s being told. You need a lot of nails, screws, and hinges for him not to wake up. This is what I call carpentry – the narrative technique in a book, or in a film. Inspiration is one thing, but narration is different. Telling a story and turning it into a literary reality which enthralls the reader is impossible without this carpenter’s work.

To enthrall a reader is to control his breathing rhythm. It mustn’t be interrupted, if we don’t want him to wake up. When I’ve reached this rhythm in my writing and I realise one of my sentences has gotten stuck in a clumsy rhythm, I add one or two adjectives — even if they shouldn’t be there. Their function is to prevent the reader from waking up. That’s carpentry.”

Sigh.

That nails and screws bit made me shudder. There’s enough carpentry in my body as it is.

If I'm ever found unconscious and docs are hurling me into an MRI machine. Pliss stop them.
If I’m ever found unconscious, and the docs are hurling me into an MRI machine. Pliss stop them.

But yes – many sighs and yellow butterflies. You can watch the interview here:

https://fod.infobase.com/p_ViewPlaylist.aspx?AssignmentID=6X7RDV

In other news, my 3 -year- old nephew finds my tattoo damn funny. He asked me who it was. I said Gabito. He said ‘Tomato’ and squealed.

Now he calls me tomato.

To Adult means what?

Image credits: TeePublic
Featured Image credits: TeePublic

No one told me that a big part of being an adult is paperwork. I spent all of last week being a good adult. And must now die in the nostalgia of sweet childhood where being adult was a lot more fun.

I am still hungry for the romance that I assume will only arrive after running away from home. The romance of living alone with a cat which will come and go like in Eunice D Souza‘s poems. Of dealing with plumbing issues on my own. Of having the occasional dinner party where friends bring expensive wine, and after they have gone, of staying up late to wash vessels and finally, of gazing out into the window like Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the enemy.

I have friends who live on their own and as I write this, I can hear their bouncing laughs. It is nothing like this. And I believe them when they say it. Even so, this has been my ultimate love story – to live alone except for those long weekends where lovers drop in and go, but cats always come back.

I digress.

The second thing I am beginning to understand about adulthood is that it’s mostly about being blind to it. A lot of growing up has happened over this year and I haven’t had the time to slow down, to see it, to either congratulate myself or curse it. Early last week, on Ambedkar Jayanthi, I wrote something that I had been trying to write for 2 years now. That post had been sitting in various angry drafts in various folders. It is a story I may have told very often, but for the first time, it didn’t feel like it was pointless. This time I had something to say.

***
Until a certain point, my life was overcrowded with people whose victories were quite strangely and rather strongly determined by how pointless they could make me feel about my writing. I have kicked them all out of my life and that is the third thing about adulthood – the gift of being able to say fuck off.

First Post carried my piece. They have some really cool design so it reads differently and better than it does on my blog. You can read it here.

I am grateful to Snegaa, who is famous for making Brahmin bedbugs weep. Snegaa who has always been there – ever since I started this blog. Over the years I have sent her pieces that I’ve enjoyed writing as also those I’ve struggled with. She has always taken time to read them carefully and offer solid advice. As of today, she is my dominatrix agent who sends me one- line reminders about sending writing pitches to publishers.

Namsiess, the love of my life is actually My Brilliant Friend. She is my Elena Ferrante, and my Lila-Lenu.

Very quickly, before this begins to sound like some lame I’d like to thank speech, I want to return to that Saturday evening of December 2012 when I was a newbie in the department. How I shyly took a piece I’d written to show it to AM and how I’d turned around with great speed and ran for my life immediately after.

Over the years, I learnt not to run, I learnt to be less afraid of my writing and what he was going to say about it. Right from calmly telling me for the 100th time, why something wasn’t working in my writing  – to his comments in those balloon like things on Microsoft word that went – ‘Were you fucking sleeping when you wrote this sentence? WAKE UP’  – to ‘Vj, just keep writing like you don’t care’ — It won’t be an exaggeration to say that over six years, he’s the teacher I am still learning from. Not just how to read and write, but also to work, to be a friend, to ignore, and most importantly — to be kind.

***

It’s my first time getting paid for something I’ve written. I have been waiting to let that sink in. It still hasn’t. And I hope it never does. Letting that sink in would be to forget the various small pleasures that I can otherwise mindlessly engage in. Like thinking about how all my school and college friends are married, about how I am every day grateful for not having done science/MBA/IIT/marriage/babies, about how I used to fail science and math but still managed to adult well, about how small I’d feel on days they’d return test papers with 9/60 and 3/50 — underlining boldly – the big failure I was to become in life.

I wish someone else was writing this but because nobody is going to narrate my life in third-person Anu Agarwal style, I must do it myself. That is the fourth thing about adulting. That sometimes you have to be the narrator, the writer, the heroine, and the villainess of your own fucking life.

P.S – Today rumlolarum is four-years-old. This baby has helped me grow more than I could have managed on my own. I’m all smiles and love. See? Proof: I don’t have to be married to be a mother.

Today I celebrate rumlolarum and my PCOD- prone uterus. Cheers!

 

rumlolarum
Thank you, WordPress!

 

 

*** Featured Image credits: TeePublic