Chhapaak (2020) has an interesting moment that I want to remember.
Malti (Deepika Padukone) and her team are in the office, celebrating the new amendment in the IPC (326 A and 326 B – which ensures a separate section for acid attacks) There is a cake that says ‘Happy Birthday 326 A 326 B’ – there are chips, samosas, juice, and loud music (Radha from Student of the Year) At one point, the neighbours phone them up, and ask for the volume to be reduced. They scream noooo and keep the party going. There’s mauj in the air. The women (all acid attack survivors) look happy and continue dancing.
Amol (Vikrant Massey) – activist, and founder of the NGO walks in and turns off the music. He looks displeased. Malti tries to pacify him (“come, cut the cake”) and he patronizingly asks for an explanation of what 326 A and B mean. Malti answers him and he goes on to berate her and all of them. It has only been amended. That doesn’t mean acid attacks will stop. Even cold drinks are more expensive than acid. Acid hasn’t been banned. Your own petition to ban acid has gone nowhere in the last 7 years and you want to party?
I want to slap his face.
Everything I want to take away from the film rests unfairly on what Malti will say next. And as I inch closer towards Malti, she calmly says “Amol sir, you know what your problem is? You behave as if you’ve been attacked with acid. But the acid was thrown on me, not you. And I — want to party“
The people standing tensely around them loosen up a little, and begin laughing. Amol doesn’t know where to look. He has just been served so he retreats.
I was left amazed but more importantly, I was left with a stone to throw at every idiot who took my personal and made it their political. Every so often, I meet young people who want to change the world. I don’t have very many feelings about them but it’s beyond irritating when they begin to act like Amol. Everything is either black or white. They won’t notice love but they talk about change. Nothing is political if it isn’t spelled out or doesn’t come with the color of dissent. You can’t party or run fests in times of dissent. What kind of a Dalit are you if you are happily sitting and organizing fests when the country is crumbling around you?
They ask this so articulately and with so much passion that you will wonder if they are Dalit.
In the past, I have felt extremely inadequate next to these super articulate people, looking back at my childhood and parents with bitterness, accusing them of having taught me nothing. Growing up was bitterness, inadequate, insecure, always doubting if I was thinking correctly, and always on the lookout for approval from super articulate people.
I craved the clarity that the Amols of the world had – they knew when they were right and that was ok but they pakka for sure knew when you were wrong. How do you arrive at that confidence? The Amols of the world have convinced us that we need their stamp of approval even to confirm our victim hood, even if it means that we want to party, despite our victim hood.
It began changing when I discovered being Dalit and then I didn’t want to be that kind of articulate anymore. That kind of articulate is rooted in privilege, in the safe knowledge that there are enough people under you over whom you will always be above and therefore ‘better’ and ‘correct.’ That it’s somebody’s great fortune that you are forsaking this privilege to share their miseries. That you must be right because you have impeccable English and speak so fiercely and articulately.
When I became more and more watchful of my parents as Dalits, I went back to my childhood, and their early parenthood with a force that was still very new to me. There was guilt and I didn’t know where to put it in the middle of seeing them in a completely different light. I discovered them as heroes who did more revolution than anybody else and they did this without patronizing other people or knowing anything about activism. What can be more articulate than that?
The clarity with which super articulate people speak comes with its own share of arrogance and that made me thankful for everything I didn’t have as an adolescent. I still wish I had the courage to speak my mind when I thought I was right but I am glad I didn’t take that chance because as I have come to discover – constantly wondering if I am wrong is a better way to learn. It’s perhaps why in my adulthood now, I have very little to undo, to unsay, to apologize for. And like Malti, I can tell you to fuck off if I want to party or organise litfests.
When it rained in Mangalore, amma made us wear raincoats and carry umbrellas but we’d still get wet. One afternoon after school we went looking for a new house in an auto. The broker was on his bike in front of us, his feet slanting upward on both footrests. We followed his yellow raincoat. The huge bungalow we first stopped at had two coconut trees growing out of it. The trees shot upwards from the roof, and looked uneasy like the swords I’d sometimes seen emerge out of Swamiji tongues in Kanyakumari.
I looked at Amma. She squinted at the trees and looked miserable. I looked at the broker. He sighed and started giving the auto driver new directions for a new house.
I wanted to tell him no. I had already imagined spending all my free time under the trees. Never before had life organised itself so beautifully as it did on those house- hunting days where the space of a new home offered dreams of being good girl – set up a solid routine, do homework on time, sleep at 9, wake at 6.
Amma and broker were damaging my creative juices.
The second house was inside a huge compound sharing space with another house. I stepped out of the auto and into a puddle, slowly, deliberately. The water seeped into my socks making it squishy. I walked around carefully listening to each squish.
A girl climbed out of a school van in front of the other house and watched us. I recognized her as a classmate but struggled to remember her name. Amma was quick to notice when we greeted each other shyly. I’d already started day dreaming a routine – this time my new best friend was in all of them.
When I was pulled away from the house, and from her, and thrust into the auto – I was beginning to bawl. Amma patted my back loudly and said that closeness is not ok. It will ruin your life.
Every time Celine Dion’s Titanic song came on TV, Pa would close his eyes and begin singing. He wouldn’t sing the song as much as imitate the way Celine Dion’s mouth opened and closed at certain points. When I started handling the remote control and learnt what the mute button does, I’d hit it and he would freeze. I’d unmute it and he’d unfreeze. Through my childhood – this used to be our favourite game.
My heart will go on used to be my school anthem, he said. Thereafter, all English songs became his school anthems. From Backstreet boys to the Friends theme song.
It had always been his dream to study in a convent school, to speak in English, to watch English films without subtitles. This led him to be fascinated with those who spoke English fearlessly and fluently.
He believed that my sister was far more fluent than anyone in the family because she was able to pronounce difficult words effortlessly.
What is that word, he asked me one day when we were watching Simi Garewal.
-Redezvas, I said.
-No – that’s not how you pronounce it. Call your sister.
-She rolled her tongue, pouted here and there and said – Raundevoo.
-Ah! he said, delighted. His tiny eyes smiling.
A week before Christmas last year, he came to me and asked if I knew any Carol songs. I found some that we both knew from having watched Home Alone obsessively. I played them for him. He bobbed his head this way and that.
–School alli ittu ee haadu (We had this in school)
— Haan, howdu, aaytu (haan, yes, ok)
So while my father was busy making faces to match Celine Dion’s song, my brother was convinced that the song was written for him. He played with his toy cars with an insane energy singing – ‘My Hot wheel go on and on’
I seem to have inherited some part of this fascination with English. In school, I was crazy about all the catholic girls in my class. I wanted to be very much like them – smell like them, bring lunch dabbas with ham sandwiches and hot dogs in them.
On the rare occasion that I went to their homes, my head would wrap itself around whatever smell there was. In Madam Rose’s tuition, I spent all my time trying to figure out where the bedroom was so I could quickly go smell it.
Sometime back, I watched this documentary, Where’s Sandra? by Paromita Vohra and was immediately reminded of my school girl days – How I longed to go to Mass and Sunday church. How I once told Madam Tara that I was Christian too so could she please allow me to accompany my other Christian friends to go build Baby Jesus’ crib?
I remembered a lanky tree we stuck in the living room of our Belgaum home and how we proceeded to assault it with ribbons and chocolates. I was crazy about Christmas and cakes and cookies.
I once spat out all the water I was drinking when my friend said that they give wine at some communion type thing in church. Wine was what my father made excuses to drink- with great difficulty to avoid amma’s pressing looks.
-It’s actually grape juice.
-It’s good for the heart.
-I’m drinking white wine. The red is actually bad for health.
-I’m drinking red wine. The white is actually bad for health.
It appeared that my mother was the most unsocial parent so every time I took friends home, she would shrug. And I was amused that in the homes of various catholic friends, their mothers seemed open with not just their children but also me. “Yes sweetheart – what’s your name,” they’d ask me. And I’d smile shyly.
-Your mom called me sweetheart! She’s so sweet – I’d say to my friend.
Josephine and I met in college. She’d wear sleeveless tops and midi skirts & again, I longed to wear the things she did. She brought me homemade beef pickle in glass jars and I emptied them into steel dabbas and told people at home that she’d made me chicken chilli pickle.
Somethings never change. I buy mouth-watering beef pickles at North-East food fests, bring them home, tear the beef label, write chilli on them with a black pen and keep them in the fridge next to the Mallige Hoovu kept for God. Something else that hasn’t changed is that I still watch English films with subtitles (only reason why I was overjoyed about Netflix and Prime coming to India.) I have a nagging worry that if there aren’t subtitles, I will lose out on bits of the film – especially when white people talk fast.
There are many reasons to love Where’s Sandra? I love that when you watch it – you aren’t just seeing Bombay – you are also hearing it.
You hear the sound of moving taxis in Bandra where she interviews shopkeepers and Sandras. The drone of the sound of Taxis pulling themselves together – the kind that I imagine comes from the pit of Bombay Taxi engines – like the sounds that came from the pit of my brother’s stomach when he played with his toy cars.
My favourite woman in the documentary is Sandra D’Souza. Her face moves from one expression to the next so quickly – it brings to mind the faces of Catholic mothers whose daughters wanted you to ask them permission for night-overs at your house.
The face goes from jolly to strict in a matter of seconds. So you learn to be watchful in their presence – you train yourself to look at your hands because you have the feeling that if you look in their faces – even if you haven’t lied, you will want to admit to having lied.
Sandra here – sits by the piano and under her sometimes stern, sometimes playful gaze, you hear the story of a community adjusting to a vast city.
I must return to Bombay for several reasons. One because I tricked myself into believing that a poem is enough but it never is and two because I am reading Vivian Gornick.
Seven years between you and a city of your childhood is enough to make you want to give up everything in its honour. Even if a great deal of this childhood was spent stuck in an apartment on the 8th floor. Even if Bombay was a two- month long vacation in a house full of singing aunties, a toothpick of an uncle whose only connection to the house, and his solitude was the wheezing AC in the only bedroom of the apartment, and an OCD prone grandmother who washed the floor and the TV with equal amounts of Surf Excel and madness.
This is all that Bombay was. This and the shopping bags from Linking Road that amma lugged into big suitcases every evening. These bags had what my sister and I wore for the rest of the year – pants in the gaudiest of red, purple, and pink. Jackets in Amrutanjan yellows, and night dresses with cows and moons on them.
She really did shop for the whole town, as dad would often say. She got bags with 20 compartments for various sisters-in-law and their cousins. Back in Bangalore, during functions, ‘Attige Bombay inda tandiddu,’ (Aunt got from Bombay) was muttered approvingly.
The evenings were hot and sweaty only because we stepped out of the AC room then. As I remember Mahim – its street walls were permanently blackened by building after building of factories. Blue carts stood idly on the footpath- and behind them – bearded old men in off-white shirts selling vad-pav. We’d hit Icy Spicy for Chinese and the good old Shobha for North Indian and Kulfi.
When I found myself in this city seven years later, I asked the nearest taxi driver to show me the way out and he mumbled something from his swollen red mouth, pan juice overflowing.
In the taxi, I was glued to the window, inhaling the formless, moving shapes outside. Big billboards with Deepika Padukone’s face on them told me that it has indeed been seven years. I think back to the time when long ago, returning from a film at 8 in the night, my aunt suddenly announced that Rani Mukherji and Karan Johar were sitting in the car next to us at the signal. I poked my head out the window, in between our car and theirs- and gaped at the horrified couple who were not Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.
They were then visibly upset and my aunt proceeded with all shamelessness to make it clear to them that even she wasn’t all that happy with them for not being Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.
Bombay hadn’t changed or if it had, I was happy to note that I didn’t care. The air was hot and smelled like it always had – Like the fantasy I had of going to Juhu Beach or an open drainage and blinding myself with a pair of binoculars, having set upon myself the task of finding the sea smell. I say binoculars here because of Garcia Marquez.
In Living to Tell the Tale, he mentions a night he spent with some friends. His brother couldn’t sleep properly because the goat next door was giving birth and the persistent moans of labour disturbed him so he said that the goat’s noise ‘is as annoying as a lighthouse’
That Lighthouse is my Binoculars.
Marquez later says that he would never forget this moment. And as it turns out, neither have I.
Bombay smell is like petrol smell. Not everybody appreciates it. There are takers and then there are abusers. I take it whole-nosedly.
It’s what I imagine I’ll smell if I stand at the edge of a flyover and open my nose out to the sea – and it’s the same smell that follows me, away from the flyover, past Kamathipura and Andheri and into Marine Drive.
In my room at the hotel next to Bombay hospital, I sneak into the small, parched balcony that is barely holding itself along with its hundred pigeon-droppings and the blackened floor. I lean out and leaning out, I reached into the corners of the mind where Bombay was tangled like the numerous black wires on the clotheslines outside the Loreto building in Mahim.
The next morning, I was walking up and down the Marine Drive beach assuming I’d get to see Shah Rukh Khan’s house somewhere. It was only after fishing out my phone and keying in my destination did I realise that that was in Bandra. You know how when you are young and if you are going to a city of film-land; you are positive that you will ‘run into’ a famous film star or at least catch a passing glance — à la Fan in Fan.
What is the point, I felt like asking after Google told me how far Mannat was from Marine Drive. I was sad for a moment and then I realised that I was in Paro Devi’s city and immediately felt like I do when I’m in love. I felt hopeful and alive from the pit of my stomach. It was 7:30 in the morning. I was a little drowsy, mildly hung-over, and no Shah Rukh Khan anywhere. But I realised that just being in the same city as your favourite writer can save you in ways even Shah Rukh Khan can’t.
Did Paro Devi come here often, I wondered. And through the rest of my stay there – it’s all I asked myself.
I was in the same city as another Shah-Rukh lover and that seemed enough. I was in the same city as a writer whose work I’d stalked for years. And there – standing in Marine Drive smiling sheepishly at all the joggers, I was able to rescue Bombay from Bombay.
I returned home with Two Bombays. One is the Bombay of my childhood and there it will remain happily for the rest of my life. The other is a borrowed Bombay – one that you know through someone else, one that comes alive in someone else’s writing. And because of some one else’s love for the city, you consume it and learn to love it.
Elena Ferrante said “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”
When I first read this, I shook my head. I didn’t agree. For a long time I believed that cities come out alive when one is not in love. But maybe I should have just read it more carefully. She is not saying anything about being in love, she is saying when there is no love. Very different things. And back in Marine Drive that day, if I hadn’t thought about Paro Devi who had taught me so much about love through her writing and her documentaries — Bombay would have become sterile.
Feminism is about Love and kindness, she says in so many of her interviews. And as I have come to realise, it really is the closest definition of Feminism.
But what does Shah Rukh Khan have to do with love or feminism?
Amma’s yellow nightie makes her face shine. She looks calm when she wears yellow. Except when I am late. Then she is never calm.
When I walk up to my room, one heavy step after another, my brown leather bag slinging morosely over my shoulder, strands of hair getting caught in the strap, I wish she is asleep. But she never is. She only sleeps after she has seen my two-wheeler parked outside. And when she has seen that, she doesn’t even see me. She walks back quietly to her room and I wait to hear the soft thud of her bedroom door closing. It’s only then that I can breathe out. My steps are far more confident when Amma isn’t home. I can breeze in happily through pa’s soft snoring and the slow, dry whizzing of the fan.
One morning I stood on the balcony and watched them go for their daily walk. My parents seem older and weaker when they are walking, especially when they are walking away from me — slowly, like every step counts, their backs slightly bent but quickly straightened after sudden remembering, their bodies – heavy and round, yet their fragile clothes hanging loosely.
Pa in his wrinkled white pajamas, eternally torn under the sleeves, forgotten, worn, taken off and then worn again. The small patch on his glistening bald pate looking smaller and helpless. Ma in her colorful chudidhar, her dupatta carelessly thrown over, so that one half of it is always traling after her loudly.
What were they talking about? I’m sure this and that. Loans, construction, BP tablets, my marriage, thyroid tablets, blood test, my brother’s tuition teacher, my marriage, granny, lunch, my marriage. That day I stood and watched them for a long time. I watched them until my neck could no longer be craned and until the road ended abruptly, rudely.
Like in most homes, we all know when pa is angry. I think Indian homes are built to acknowledge the man’s many moods. The home would shrink and become hot making it unbearable to live in pa’s anger’s aftermath. Even the kitchen smells would withdraw into a corner and there they would stand until it was safe to step out. When I was small, I wished that whenever pa was angry, all the volumes on all the TV’s and radios could just mute themselves. It was just too terrible when he was going to explode and Urmila Matondkar’s Kambakth Ishq was playing obscenely loud. Which meant that that day we were all going to be lectured not just for watching kachda Mtv but also for watching it on that obnoxious volume.
They rarely fight and I can only rememeber this one time that they fought. I learnt that Amma doesn’t cook when they fight. She sleeps the morning off and pa walks all over the house in a haze. His face is calm but his lips are gently pursed and every now and then, a tcha tcha can be heard. His hands run constantly against each other – the fingernails touching, grizzling, moving up and down in one swift motion. Baba Ramdev’s exercise for quick and thick hair growth. It has been over a decade now. No hair, nothing. But pa hasn’t stopped doing it. It’s a habit now. Hair can go to hell.
Pa goes out to buy food on these days. On the dining table there are 5 newspaper packets — idlis, vadas, sambars and chutneys — all rolling in one thick Darshini smell. We’d eat some and save the rest for night.
The next morning when I’d finally see Amma, her eyes would be small and puffy and she wouldn’t linger out of the bedroom for very long. They’d patch up soon and the home would go back to being room temperature again, and all the smells would come out slowly, except that there’d still be a faint trace of the darshini idli chutney smell and this I’d only discover when I’d lock up all the doors and switch off all the lights and tiptoe towards my room. And here the only sound to accompany my dull footsteps would be the bright hum of the fridge.
Mouma’s neck is wrinkly like her hands. If I put my hands around her neck, and give it a good squeeze, I imagine I can feel the soft wriggly mass of bloody veins inside. When Mouma uses fair and lovely, she rubs her palms over her face and the film never leaves her. Not even in the evening when she returns home from wherever it is she goes to. She likes body massages and facials so all us sisters have painfully sat through these sessions, rubbing her face with whatever cream we could find, sometimes even using toothpaste on her cheeks, having convinced her that it’s really an imported brand.
When I was small, I’d sneak into her room to look for hidden packets of vibhooti – ones she’d hide just for me – away from mom’s reach. These packets came in varied bright colors – orange, green, blue, pink – made of cheap papery material, but all tiny and folded eloquently. Opening these packets was never fussy in the way that opening packets usually is. The thin layer of vibhooti would sit in an even, rectangular film. I wanted to ravage it and also not because it looked strangely perfect. In no less than two seconds, I’d paste my tongue on the vibhooti and hold it there for a minute. After I was sure that enough of it had been taken in, I’d roll my tongue back and wait for the burnt carbony taste to take over.
After devouring the vibhooti, I’d stand in front of the mirror to adore the white traces left behind. And then my stomach would rumble and I’d feel sick from the ash taste in my mouth.
Mouma’s room always smelled different from the rest of the house. While the rest of the house baked in the warm afternoon sun, her room was never hot.
No matter what time in the day it is, in Mangalore, all houses smell of Dalithoy. When they put ghee into the pan to make Dalithoy, the smell is the strongest in the hall and the doorway. From here it escapes to the neighbours’ house just as their Dalithoy smells come to us. Like this, we all live in one giant Dalithoy pan.
Except in mouma’s room though – where it smelled a little of marie biscuits, vibhooti and mostly other temple smells. A TV and a big tape recorder sat in two different corners of the room. She only switched the TV on in the evenings to watch her serials. And the tape recorder was only used to keep other things on top of it. I was surprised to find out much later that it actually worked.
Mouma’s tirganos (underskirts) were, like the packets of vibhooti, varied bright colors – green, red, and orange. They were all faded and that’s the only item of her clothing that I saw everywhere in her room. Even though she may have owned only three, it always seems like she had more. Her sarees, on the other hand were plenty and yet I remember only the yellow one with the red dots that she wore. This is the saree that I don’t remember being folded at all. It was worn, washed and made to fall in the heap full of freshly washed clothes, where it was picked up from and worn again as if it never left her body.
While it was being washed, she wore a blouse that was too small for her and a tirgano, like a proper Malabar woman. She kept her hair open when she was at home. And when she went out, she wore a phanthi (wig) and coiled all of it into a dignified bun. She stole lipsticks and creams from her daughters and hid all of them somewhere in her room. She stole bras from her grand-daughters that no one knows where she hides. Let alone what she does with them.