On Self-respect or how to unpark a car in Basavanagudi

This Insta series was originally published on the Scrolls & Leaves Podcast.

Ever since I first read Joan Didion’s essay on self-respect a couple of years ago, I have taken it to every class I teach. My wish, that it gives young girls whatever sense of self I didn’t have when I was growing up is only slightly overshadowed by something selfish. I take it to class every year because I need to read it every year.

My self-respect tank runs on reserve through the year & for that one week when we do the essay in class, I feel like I have my self-respect firm in my palm. I try to understand how and why a white woman sitting so far away can know and have anything useful to say to a not- white teacher. But I’ve given up trying to reason with it. Those better equipped to deal with the ‘problematics’ of the situation may deal with it. I am more interested in taking the gift and running away with it.

A very Basavanagudi thing happened in Basavanagudi last week. We recently moved into a rented house and our neighbors already hate us. One doesn’t like that we park our car in front of our gate because he wants to park his car there. His caste, kula, gotra I don’t want to get  into, we live in Basavanagudi; you figure. 

One afternoon, my father was rushing to the bank and requested him to move his vehicle because it was blocking ours. The neighbor shrugged and didn’t come out of his house. My father went walking. 

After that, my father made it a point to park our car right at the gate before the neighbor could. Even though he shouldn’t have to, let’s proceed.

The neighbor called the traffic police & complained bitterly to the confused young officer who responded. If the officer was entertained, he couldn’t hide it well:  ‘So you have a problem if they park their car in front of their gate?’ Still, the neighbor persisted. My father lost it and ran screaming at the neighbor. The anger in my father’s voice does the same thing to me today that it has always done: irritate me, get me to think about how unnecessary it is, and bring me to automatic tears. In the past, I’ve seen my father scream so loudly, the red in his eyes don’t leave until the next morning, his face is concretely unmoving, and his temples throb as if struggling to come out. But when he was shouting at the neighbor, I realized it was the only thing he could’ve done. I understood the source of all his anger.

By then, the neighbor had gathered supporters on the strength of his and their births. Some stood on balconies, threads visible, saying to my father: ‘Just because you have a big car doesn’t mean…’ And that’s when I saw it – the source of their anger. The problem may not have been the car after all, it was the size of the car, which was perhaps as big as their bruised pride.

This morning, returning from a walk I saw a couple of policemen pacifying someone very much like the neighbor. He kept pointing at a few discarded flowers on the footpath. An hour ago when I’d walked the same way, I’d seen flower vendors sitting on the footpath under the shade of a large tree. The flower vendors were nowhere to be seen now. A man came running to them and said, “Saar, look at all this dirt, that too in front of a Brahmin house.”

What I’ve learnt from this tragicomical angst towards outsiders/’polluters’ in Basavanagudi is that the centre is not holding.

I am thinking of Gogu Shyamala’s ‘But Why Shouldn’t the Baindla Woman Ask for Her Land?’, where Saayamma bangs her fists, makes a fuss, and pushes the village heads with an iron grit and won’t leave until she takes back what belongs to her. I am thinking how much indignity there is in asking for things that you shouldn’t have to ask for (because they are yours to begin with).

I am thinking how those who make you ask for these things not only get to keep their dignity but yours as well. I am thinking of how the consequence of not making a fuss is different for different people. I am thinking of how every other passerby who heard my father roaring on the street would’ve called him an uncouth wild man. I am thinking of a Bahujan writer on a zoom panel I once attended. She was accused of not having got the question right and wouldn’t let go until both the moderator and the other speaker had apologized.  These people who took back what was theirs, took it despite the consequences – they were not wild; they weren’t even angry; they were just holding on to their self-respect.

I am led back to the quietness of Didion’s words and wonder whether it is enough to sneak my self-respect out from wherever it is hiding, and- whether it’ll do. It will do. Didion says, “​​To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect” — which to me means that some of our routes to self-respect aren’t going to be dignified and are certainly not going to be quiet. The route is what often gets us called mad and difficult. But it’s what will eventually free us from the Savarna expectation that we will keep eating kadlepuri while they hack at our self-respect.

Under the Trumpet tree

This story was written for Dhruv Sehgal’s Table for One series. I wrote it one early morning in September last year after I’d spent weeks editing, vomiting, and pulling hair out with several other drafts. It’s a story that is very old — I’ve repeated it to anyone who’ll listen so part of the challenge was to write as if I was hearing it for the first time myself. As much as I hate to admit how hairless this made me, I like that the story flowed out as if it knew what it had to do. It was smoother than the flow of my vagina monologues. No story has left my body with this much ease since. Thank you, Dhruv.

It was 4:45 am. The houses in Basavanagudi were all asleep. Some had only just gone to sleep. The call center returnees walked into their homes, sleepily closing gates. In their half-dream-half awake state, the gates were often left unlatched, and lights on. Some other houses, like mine, were dreaming. The house next to mine was wide awake though. Yellow light had filled its windows to the brim and the front yard was already wet and smelling of earth. The old woman woke before the sun every morning, had a cold water bath with her saree on, fought the cold using just her fists (clasped tightly), walked to the gate like a soldier, and drew rangoli. Today it was 4 dots on 4 lines. Each dot made a hula hoop around itself and ran over other dots.

She lived with an angry son who howled like a wolf and wept like a baby if his mother was too ill to wake early and have a cold water bath on some days. Her wrinkly old feet could barely carry her but she did this every morning without fail. In the beginning, it was because her son demanded, and now it was because her body did.

She waited patiently by the gate for the milk man to arrive. He came at 5 every morning in a squeaky cycle that nevertheless sailed on the streets. He left milk packets inside the gate of each house on the street, except the old woman’s. One morning, after reading a forward on his WhatsApp group ‘B’gudi B’mins’, the son called the milkman and told him they won’t need milk anymore. The old woman froze. He told her because she was a Madi, she should now also refrain from luxuries like coffee.

Her last cup of coffee was two weeks ago. She had dreamt of it for nights after that, mouth barren, throat itchy, and hands balled up into two angry fists for two weeks, she had walked around the house, spitting acid fire at walls. The son had his extra strong coffee at a Darshini before and after office so he was set. That first cup of morning coffee was the only time in the day where time was hers, she was hers. An unspoken rule in these houses was that no matter how urgent it is, you don’t disturb someone when they have their coffee. Her nose tortured her for two weeks, it collected decoction smells from surrounding houses and brought them to her. She tried to take deep breaths to ingest as much smell as possible so that for days she smelled like coffee and the son sniffed around her like a Rottweiler before leaving for office. She sat by the front door and imagined a cup of filter coffee in her hands. She missed its warmth on her fingertips and the warmth it sent down her throat. She missed the little bubbles that popped on her tongue with every sip.

And so today, she stood by the gate with swollen fists, waiting for the milkman because, today, she had a plan.

The milkman left our packet inside the black letterbox where letters never came. My parents had built this house from the memory of hunger in their empty childhood. The letterbox was something they had seen outside big houses so they got one made too. But it soon became clear to us that letterboxes are for everything but letters. To begin with, only bills fell there. Father kept grains for the birds there, Mother kept used plastic covers there, and the milk man left milk packets there.

The old woman waited for the milkman like a cat does before leaping. In the dimness of the still young sky, the pink trumpet tree above her grew bigger and darker. It stood mutely as the milkman came, left the packets inside our letter box and left. When he had done the same at the last house on the street, she moved quickly. She opened her gate, then ours, thrust her hand inside the letterbox, grabbed one milk packet and hurried out, latching the gate carefully and soundlessly.

Now she had work to do. She had to get the milk to boil soon, make coffee, hold the smell in her fists, stop it from leaking into her own house, and stop it from entering her son’s nose. In between all the hurry and the quickness, she also had to find a moment and pause it so the rest of the world could stop for just one second while she enjoyed her coffee. No matter what she did, the smell was going to leak. The least she could do was hide it, so she waited for all the houses on the street to wake up and make coffee. When smells from other houses reached hers, her secret could hide in them.

The son usually woke at this hour and spent an hour in the bathroom so she got the milk to boil in 4 minutes and carried it in a small cup to the terrace. Behind a pot of Tulsi, she had left the coffee filter to stand alone and percolate. A thick ring of coffee smell had gathered around the pot and she couldn’t help but smile.

She poured a little decoction into the cup and emptied the mixture back into the filter, increasing the distance with every transfer so that the smell settled in her head. The cup was now floating under a film of bubbles. This, finally, was her moment. It became a pause when her fists released themselves into palms, and she carried them to the edge of the terrace where she took her first sip and watched the sun come up. Someone was trying to kick start his Honda Activa, the garbage truck was slowing down over a hump, and the pink trumpet tree was now its pinkest.

Something had been won. The following couple of sips sent roots of warmth across her body so that her still wet sari wasn’t cold anymore. She smiled.

She did this again the next day, and the next. Her son didn’t notice. But my father did. He saw her running out of our gate with a milk packet one morning, and he told my mother that it wasn’t the milkman who was cheating us, it had been the old woman all along. The next morning, he woke early and stood by the front window, waiting. When she took the milk packet, he was quick to open the door. The old woman turned behind and saw him. My father, thinking he had delivered his ‘Aha’ moment was satisfied that she had been caught red-handed. But as it turned out, pause was more important to her than dignity, palms more than fists, so she hitched her wet sari in one hand, held the milk packet fiercely with the other and bolted out amidst my father’s screams of kalli kalli kalli.

My father was in a fix. He went back inside empty-handed, scratching his head. My mother told him later that day to just tell the milkman to bring us an extra packet. ‘Let it go. Why would that Ajji steal if it wasn’t important? Maybe she really needs it.’ But my father couldn’t let go. He had to get to the bottom of this. He didn’t have to wait long though.

One morning, the old woman stood at the compound under the trumpet tree and watched as my brother washed his two-wheeler. She had seen something that made her pause. His shirt was crumpled into a ball by the gate and he was only wearing pajama bottoms, bobbing his head to the music in his earphones. She stood there for a long time looking for something on his shoulder to appear, like thunder after lightning. When he turned around, she asked him why he wasn’t wearing this thread. He removed his earphones and apologized. ‘What thread?’ he asked.

The next morning onwards, our milk packets were left alone. In a language that people don’t speak anymore, there is an old saying. Milk has no caste, but milk packets do.

Rain: with apologies to Francis Ponge

⁣The rain, by the front door where I watch it fall, is only in its effects. Nothing like the way I imagine it from inside, where it falls on the house in sounds: splatters, drips, trips, pattars, thwacks, & pachaks. ⁣By the steps, it gushes in soundless patterns as if letting go after too much withholding.⁣

Outside the compound, it flows down the road, in a fierce, determined brown, the kind that means the tea is perfect. ⁣In a far away country, I once stepped out to find that it had been raining for a while, with no warning. Where is the rain if there’s nothing for it to fall on, alva? Without gudgud, without laughter?

Like it does here from pipes sticking out of pakkad manè, as the French say. Or freezes itself into white droplets on thick black wires, trickling into each other now, running away now.⁣

On mosaic, it falls with clarity. On granite, with purpose. On marble, with glory. On my palm, with giggles. But no one has quite learnt to catch it like the trees do. After all, only they seem to know what to do when it rains – stand themselves in utter, brilliant solitude, refusing to go anywhere, soaking it all in, shivering only when they want to.

Read Francis Ponge here.

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

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.