Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, and he’ll show you what freedom is

This essay was first published on Huff Post India (30 Oct 2020). Temporarily posting it here until it finds a new home.

When we first moved to Basavanagudi in Bangalore, a relative told Appa he should chop the top half of the Tabebuia tree growing in front of our house. He said that a tree growing taller than your house was bad luck, it would stunt your prosperity. Of course, that same person also told Appa not to let daughters sleep under vaulted ceilings because it made them ambitious and they would never get married. Appa studied the ceiling and the tree with caution. Amma made a fuss, not on behalf of my ambitions but because she had put her life on hold to build this house. The vaulted ceiling was her final touch. I have now spent 13 years under it and for 13 years no matter where I was in life and how many ambitions I had and how often they cut me, the Tabebuia tree dropped pink flowers every February.

During the pandemic, I took to spending hours on the terrace under the shade of the Tabebuia tree, reading, watering plants, and listening to short stories by women. Over Jamaica Kincaid’s words (‘Figures in the Distance’) in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s voice one evening, I discovered rows of sugary dust left behind by ants on a pear leaf. I scraped some out, surprised when they made my fingers sticky. Kincaid’s narrator was saying that as a child, she was convinced that only people she didn’t know died. I think back to the time my grandfather died; how his body had grown smaller in death and was being bathed under the Tabebuia tree even as Brahmin neighbors retreated into their homes, repulsed by the sight of bare-chested, thread-less Dalit men walking around. I think back more recently to the time my oldest uncle died, looking just as his father had, his small body cradled by the man bathing him.

I was brought back to the story when Adichie whispered “We were afraid of the dead because we never could tell when they might show up again” Her dipping voice both covering and revealing the child narrator’s goosebumps. I tightened my grip on the water pipe to manage the urge to highlight that line, as if I was reading it off a kindle, off a mobile screen, copying those lines to later paste and post on twitter, an invitation for others to read, for me to remember weeks or months later when I’m senselessly scrolling down to see if there’s anything I’ve said in excess, anything that must be uncurated. There are 60 potted plants on the terrace although Appa says 58 because two are succulents and he doesn’t think of them as real plants. I stopped arguing with him after he began using them as weights for the plate of bird grain. Two weeks into the lockdown, Appa began coming up to the terrace only to feed the birds. For a while, he used to stop at the plants, considering them, cursing them when they weren’t growing, and then ignoring them entirely when he discovered birds because they showed him they remembered him.

At home, there were varying opinions about how often plants must be watered. Appa said weekly, my sister said once in three days. I saw logic
in both but selfishly continued watering them every day because in the 30 minutes that it took to water the plants, I could listen to stories without interruption, where even I couldn’t interrupt myself. And what is a short story if not an interruption, a sudden, smallish hole to free-fall into? My hands were tied, so were my ears. All I could do was shut up, water the plants, and listen to the story.  One morning, Appa played a YouTube tutorial video for the confused koel sitting on the Tabebuia tree. He was teaching it how to sing, not croak. “Listen to how the birds do it here, you are not doing it properly,” he was instructing it. We told him not to birdsplain but neither the koel nor he was interested in our opinion. Amma left him alone and took to watching the parrots that came in clouds, sat a while, and then fluttered away, early in the mornings. “I saw 50 parrots today,” she told anyone who called her on the phone.

Every year during Hiriyar Habba, we remember our dead elders. There’s mutton, egg, and chicken on a plantain leaf, a bundle of beedis sticking
out of a small glass, and bottles of cheap whiskey, all arranged neatly in front of stern, black and white pictures of Ajja and Doddappa. The meat
on the plantain leaf is then eaten by the oldest members of the family. This year though, instead of eating them, Appa stood on the terrace holding mutton pieces, waving them at the hawks that swooped down and grabbed what they could. One of the hawks lost its grip on a piece and it fell right into our neighbors’ compound. Appa’s eyes widened with delight, although a familiar, muted fear crept in between his eyebrows. Later that day, there was outrage in the neighbor’s house, and curses that fell on our caste while Appa snorted lazily and Amma glared at no one.

Three months ago, the neighbors were flying kites and one morning I saw blue threads hanging uselessly from the Tabebuia tree. Some days later,
Appa rescued a pigeon struggling to free itself from one of those threads. Streaked with blood, it was caught in the pigeon’s wings and lodged deep inside the skin, making several cuts every time it tried to get away. Appa held the bird in his left hand in that gentle way that might look rudely firm to an untrained eye. I kept wondering if he’d hurt the pigeon more in the process or if the pigeon would turn around and bite him but Appa was deft with the scissors, making one quick cut after another. When the last loop had been cut, he freed the bird and it flew away with a flutter, making Appa laugh.

Our house and its Tabebuia tree are flanked by houses that wear threads of a different kind. In the 13 years that we’ve lived here, our neighbors have only remained neighbors, never becoming anything more, anything less. During the lockdown, I often see Appa standing by the window, watching the neighbors every time they gather near the katte in the morning to read newspapers, laugh, and talk. I wonder if he ever desired that kind of companionship but then I see him with his pigeons and his hawks and his crows and I have an answer. I think back to the time when our neighbor stopped stealing our milk packet after she discovered its Dalitness, and how since then, Appa stands defiantly by the door, publicly eavesdropping on every loud, private quarrel between her and her son. I think of the privacy he gives birds when they eat. How he stands behind the door discreetly, and watches them, smiling like a man who has just learnt how to fly. I am glad that the trees and birds here are more ours than Basavanagudi and its people. Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, and he’ll show you what freedom is like no one else can, regardless of what colour the thread is or how long.

B for Basavanagudi

1

The neighbors have been flying kites & on some mornings I see silent blue threads hanging uselessly from the tabebuia tree outside our home. This morning, Appa rescued a pigeon struggling to free itself from one of those threads.

The thread, streaked with blood, was caught in the pigeon’s wings & lodged deep inside the skin, making several cuts every time it tried to get away. Appa held the bird in his left hand in that gentle way that might look rudely firm to an untrained eye. I kept wondering if he’d hurt the pigeon more in the process or if the pigeon would turn around and poke him but Appa was deft with the scissors, making one quick cut after another. When the last loop had been cut, he freed the bird and it flew away with a flutter, making Appa laugh.

Every morning Appa keeps a plate of pigeon peas & two troughs of water on the terrace for the birds. It doesn’t end here. He then stands behind the door discreetly, & watches them, smiling like a man who has just learnt how to fly. In the evenings, he identifies birds by the sound they make when they fly. 

***

Our house & its tree stand flanked between houses that wear thread of a different kind. This is perhaps why Amma was adamant about a house in Basavanagudi, in the heart of the city’s Baman-land. People have their own ways of annihilating caste. This was probably hers – as payback to all those times she & Appa had to swallow insults from Savarna neighbors.

In Basavanagudi where caste is rooted quite fiercely, its illness is visible, audible, & tangible. It began with our milk packets that were first stolen & then hurriedly left alone & untouched after their ‘Dalitness’ was discovered. Yes, milk has caste too.

The old woman & her son who live next-door are close to murdering each other. Their fights are loud, his cries after each fight – louder. He throws plates & glasses at her, she throws insults. He cries because he’s ill. They both are. Caste made them that way. We were unsettled when we first heard the man cry.

We’d never heard a grown man cry like that before. Over time, we got used to it. But Appa continues to listen intently from his bedroom window, not missing a single fight. We were convinced the son is violent but it took a while to make sense of her violence that is less heard than his but lurking just as strongly as the thread across his shoulder.

He tried to break free at one point. He married outside his caste, brought the bride home but something chased her away. The old woman was particular about what was kept where, what she could touch, what she couldn’t, what she could eat on what days, etc and soon the wife ran away. He breaks down more often after that.

One morning, after a particularly nasty fight, the old woman hollered at the neighbours to call the police. He’s trying to kill me, she screamed. Pa called the police but she chased them away when they came. Then the son hurled insults at Appa, swore at him, & in my mother’s words, ‘said a lot of dirty things about us that I could not bear to hear’ 

After that, Appa doesn’t hide his curiosity to know why they are fighting. He stands outside, his hands on his waist to show them that he is listening. When I try to haul him in, he says ‘they can fight openly, I can’t listen openly?’ 

I think of the privacy he gives birds when they eat & drink and love him more than I ever have.

***

In the house behind ours, a 3-year-old child is oiled & washed with hot water every morning. Their bathroom nearly touches our grills & on some days, I can see the steam coming out of there. The child screams his Kannada lungs out – saaakuuu, tumba bisiiii, bedaaaa, nilsuuuuu, ammmmmaaa saaakuuu. It is torture. For us. I don’t know enough to gather if the child has some phobia because that kind of screaming is not just coming from a kid that doesn’t want to bathe. What I do know is that the lady bathing him is not actually scrubbing just physical dirt. Between the mother-son duo & the woman who scrubs the child clean from all potential ‘untouchability’, Basavanagudi is evidence that caste, as Ambedkar pointed out – is a state of mind. 

Its disease is so accepted that sometimes it appears as if ours is the only home that is bothered by these violences that are granted as ok, as shastra, as culture, and cleanliness.

I am glad that the trees & birds here are more ours than Basavanagudi & its people. Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, & he’ll show you what freedom means like no one else can, regardless of what color the thread is or how long.

We are here only

We are here only

There is a girl who lives 2 houses behind mine, and she never misses sunsets. We don’t know each other and this is ok because what would we do with the sudden, almost brutal knowledge of seeing each other one morning, sitting demurely on our two-wheelers, in our office clothes, going to office? It is far too naked.

I like that this is the only way we have come to know each other. Together, we watch the sunset in Basavanagudi. It might be setting everywhere else too, but from the way we both swallow the orange pink light, and eat the sun whole – from here and from there – it feels like it setting only for us.

It’s nice to know that there is always a moment when we walk the length of each of our terraces, that when we are walking away from the sun, we are both wondering what we are missing, so we keep looking back to find that nothing has changed and everything has.

There is also a boy, a few houses to the left, who stands at the edge of his terrace, (dangling from it, really) to take pictures. Occasionally we look at him but in our universe, he is a dot. He isn’t here for the long haul like we are – where, after the sun disappears into the papery thin sky, and there’s that moment of total silence (as if the only thing that should happen when the sky is drained of color, when the plunger plunges everything out from the sink – is silence) he is gone, but we are here – she and I.

That’s when the birds come. They fly in the same pace, towards the same direction, often noiselessly, like a still painting where only the birds look alive. It’s then that we leave, the both of us, feeling full and somewhat empty.