Once Upon a Rainy Mangalore Day

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.

***

From Sandra from Bandra to Celine from Dion – My Heart Will Go On

Credits - indiantelevision.com

Credits – indiantelevision.com

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’

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***

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.

***

Featured Image Credits – indiantelevision.com

To Bombay from Bombay

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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.

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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.

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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.

***

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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?

Now only I will start writing next post.

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Home

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

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.

My Mouma, my heroine.

To Georgie

My grandfather had nice, white, round teeth that he removed every night and put in a tumbler of cold water before sleeping. We were only allowed to touch it when it was in his mouth. In the morning when it was all there, my sister and I‘d see him and ask him to smile for us. He’d laugh and my sister and I’d make plans again to wake up extra early the next morning to watch him wear his teeth. As it turned out, no matter how early we woke, it was never early enough to catch him wearing his teeth.

Maybe he never took them off. Maybe he waited for us to leave and put them back on before he slept every night. Either ways, the tumbler he put his teeth in came alive like a new story, only in the night. During the day, it stayed forgotten under the cot it was pushed.

He had the nicest smile. It was always a small smile that lasted no more than 5 seconds regardless of how well one knew him. The corners of his sometimes unshaven mouth would glisten under the heavy spectacles he wore. He had short white hair and soft blue eyes; blue of the Indian old people eye blue- blue; the silvery, agile blue that will stick to your finger if you are ever brave enough to poke the eye.

He lost his vision 5 years before he died and for 5 years, we saw many nurses come and go. The longest he had, stayed for 6 months. She was an unruly sort of a woman who yelled at him when she thought no one was around. She’d sit in the balcony for hours together fighting with her lover on the phone. On days that there was no spat, she was cheerful and sang songs that upset my grandfather.

When ma first told us that he couldn’t see anymore, I wondered what he’d miss seeing the most. The answer was simple. He had had the biggest crush on Preity Zinta. He’d miss seeing her dimples the most.

***

Ajja told us stories of The Ramayana and Mahabharata. In Bhadravathi, where we went every year for Diwali, the cousins and I’d gather around him and listen to the stories. He’d close his eyes, his palms resting evenly on his lap, his white Lux bunian and panche softer and warmer than ironed clothes. He told us stories about poor men who became rich, about greedy men who cut open a hen’s stomach to get golden eggs, about princesses who were sad, about housewives who watered fingernail trees, about crows, monkeys and other animals who fought and became friends again.

We knew the stories by-heart. We knew points in these stories where his voice would dim into whispers and the points where it’d rise into fury. When he narrated Sita’s tragedy, his voice quivered, when he spoke about Hanuman, his voice took charge of his posture, his hands flailing about imitating Hanuman’s. When he spoke about Ram and Lakshman, his voice was demanding and angry but never forceful in a masculine way. His story voice was determinedly and uniformly feminine.

In all the time that I’ve known him, I don’t think my grandfather ever wore creased panches. Dipped in a bucketful of water, I imagine they broke apart and came together like cotton. Not like the bunians he wore – torn here and there in small, bird-bite sized holes, sometimes near the armpit, sometimes near the middle of his chest.

***

In his quieter moments after he lost sight, Ajja would sit by the door, on a chair that was decidedly his in the Veranda, eavesdropping on conversations. At any given point, my grandfather would be the only man in the house to know why the women in the house were fighting. He was never one to dismiss these fights as silly. He took great interest in the things that happened at home. He knew the lazy maids by the shoddy way in which they swept and swabbed the floor. He also knew them by the days they wouldn’t turn up and this he painfully reminded my mother at the end of every month when she handed them their salary. He knew his wife’s moods by the kind of shit she watched on television. He knew not to ask for an extra helping of anything during lunch if the afternoon was still brewing in the warm remains of a morning fight.

When he agreed with the Udaya TV news on any given day, he’d loudly say Bhesh! When he wanted to decry what he watched, he’d shake his head quietly like an animal trying to get rid of flies. In any case, he took the news more personally than his marriage.

***

Ajja

I realized that my grandmother did not talk to my grandfather only after it was pointed to me. For a long time, I was oblivious to their relationship. They seemed like any other old couple. They shrugged and nodded to communicate. She’d bang his breakfast on the table and he’d complain about the food loud enough for everybody to hear. I assumed that that’s how they always were.

I cannot picture them talking to each other, the way my parents do nor can I imagine them in the company of others – laughing and making merry. I learnt much later that what they did and how they went by without talking to each other was something that nobody understood but everyone knew about.

The eldest son my grandparents had was their favourite. When Ajja got his PPF money, Ajji told him to save it so they could buy a house for themselves. He refused to listen to her and gave his eldest son all the money. This, I am told, is the reason why Ajji stopped talking to Ajja and started a cold war that lasted well until his death 4 years ago.

I am also told that Ajja had great love for his wife that he showed only in moments. She was the stone-hearted one, they all say. But I’m inclined to believe that Ajji was well within her rights to be demanding. She is a fiercely independent woman who suffers even to this day from the curse of having far too many men around her.

Ajji’s harshest critic was her younger sister, Sumitramma — A husband- worshipping woman who wouldn’t let a day go by without attempting peace between her sister and brother-in-law.

Many years ago, the sisters and my mother went to watch a Malashree film about a family that is saved by the daughter-in-law. Savior AKA Malashree looks deep into the camera at one point and says something about Mangalya being the biggest swarga for women (Read: husband is heaven, god and all those things)

This is the moment that Sumitramma wisely chose to instruct her sister. Keldiya akka (Did you listen to that?), she asked her sister. Ajji calmly stood up and then walked off to sit seven rows away from Sumitramma. She watched the rest of the film alone. My mother who found the whole thing funny reported this to us with great, strong laughs.

***

From my father, who inherited his father’s baldness, I learnt that Ajja didn’t let him study Hindi in school. This is something that dad continued to hold against him for a long time. But ma thinks he’s far more upset about the baldness.

When they were travelling once – Ajja and my parents – dad told ma to breathe in deeply every time they passed a forest area. Ajja, needless to say, overheard and reported this to Sumitramma. Usradakku helkodtane. He teaches her how to breathe also.

Sumitramma only told him that he is after all, Ajja’s son – loves his wife far too much for his own good. When Ajja heard this, he walked off and never brought it up again.

***

Must Must Must

Bubbly and the troop left for Mangalore at 5:00 this morning. Can’t believe she’s getting married already. Can’t believe the pressure that’s going to mount on me now to get married. Must must must think of abandoning the peeps and running off to a little place of my own. I have been dreaming of moving out since I was 16. I’ve been saying that longer than I have been saying I want to move out. FML.

Holiday today and yesterday 🙂 I cannot stop smiling! Yesterday I watched two horror movies back to back on Netflix and read a bit of Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the new Reading Room book. I’m slowly acquiring a taste for reading books at leisure and for watching horror movies obsessively. On Saturday, T and I watched Lights Out. Bastard is always fun to watch horror with. He’s just as jumpy as I am and starts panicking after returning home, which is always fun to make fun of. He called me an hour after we left to say that the lights at his home suddenly went out and that he’s freaking out to bits.

Kabali fever is getting to me. Must must must watch it soon. And with the right peeps in the right place. Only Lavanya or Poornima, that is.

In other news, I’m rediscovering the hots for Shah Rukh Khan. Have been listening only to Shah Rukh songs on YouTube since morning. Boli si surat is playing now and I’m remembering fondly how 19 years ago, mom and dad sneaked out of the house to watch Dil To Pagal Hai. Of course, I caught them red-handed and rolled on the floor and wailed until they decided to take me with them. They were like that then. They were convinced that if we watched Shah Rukh’s movies, we’d fall in love with boys and run away from home. Which is what my cousin M did.

Needless to say, every time DTPH played on Sony Max after that, dad would turn the TV off in a rage and yell at us to go study. Mother would purse her lips together if we ever talked dreamily about hero – heroines. Once she found my secret stash of pictures of all film stars – ones that I had painstakingly cut out from Star Dust and Film Fare. Shah Rukh, Madhuri, Kajol, Rani, Preity, Saif, Akshay, Urmila, Tabu, Sush, and Ash all had to be burnt in the choola because mother refused to speak to me until I got rid of all of them.

I wept and wept like only a girl who has been denied a secret life could weep. My cousins, N and R stood behind me and offered moral support while I threw all the pictures into the fire. I watched morosely even as Urmila’s red lipstick turned into a miserable, ugly grey and then ash.

N and R clicked their tongues every time I fished out a new picture. Didn’t matter who I was throwing , they all had glistening bodies and lovely hair. They each deserved the severest of tongue-clicking. Today, I have unlimited access to pictures from filmistan and whatnot. Still, there is neither the urge nor inspiration. Pah.

Rendezvous

When we were little, my sister and I were obsessed with Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. We would all watch the show together in the hall, where the big screen TV was — Mom, Dad, Mintu and I. Mom had to constantly shush my dad because he wouldn’t shut up. He would always have more questions than Simi Garewal.

Yen ante? Maduve aagalvanta avlu? Thu bevarsi saabi are some of things he said quite often.

Mintu and I would be sitting in two corners of the hall- far away but not so much that I couldn’t see her when I wanted to. Watching Simi Garewal together was also a way of watching my sister and checking. Checking to see if she nodded and smiled at the same points that I did, to see if she’s copying me, to later force her to pick another favourite show, and by extension — to make sure that we were living safely different lives.

Watching the show uninterrupted was of prime importance. Pees would be held in, thirsts would be quenched by gulping slivers of saliva and curses were muttered when phones rang or doorbells violated our sanctity.

An episode that I really liked a lot was the Preity Zinta one. She was well liked at home, except for dad who couldn’t stand her. He had read somewhere that she didn’t want to marry because she could never share a toilet with a man. Owing to my mother’s histrionic complaints about his fart smells — he decided to take offence on behalf of all men and has, since then, never forgiven Preity Zinta for that comment.

I, on the other hand, was simply nuts for her right after Kya Kehna. She was chirpy and funny. I had never seen an actress be funny outside of a movie before. And so I was glued right from the beginning. Here was the deal — if any actress on Simi Garewal had a nice English accent and spoke really well — she would be my sister’s and my favourite actress for weeks after that. We would fight and make each other promise that we would not like her, but secretly we would worship her. We didn’t like breaking rules we had set for ourselves — actresses couldn’t be shared. We had to have our own individual actresses to look up to.

An anecdote that PZ mentions on the show still makes me giggle. When she was 12 and wasn’t allowed anywhere near an army party, she went to her mother’s wardrobe, picked up some random bra, wore it and stuffed oranges down there.

‘Oranges?’, cried Simi Garewal. That was probably the first time someone mentioned bra at home and on TV. My father shifted in his seat a little bit but we continued watching the show. The remote control was safely tucked away under some newspapers so we were secure in the knowledge that the moment had passed and there would be no channel changing.

Another favourite was Sushmita Sen, someone I am still besotted with. Her black formals and light lavender lipstick were objects of desire for a long time.  But that wasn’t all. It was the way she laughed so openly, the way she had something witty to say to each question and the fact that she had adopted a girl. Later, I would find out from another chat show called ‘Jeena Isika Naam Hai’ that she didn’t know English very well until she started to prep for the Miss Universe pageant. And also that the evening gown she wore in the final round – one that she was eventually crowned Miss Universe in, was stitched by a tailor who ran a small shop in her building.

Once these shows were over, Mintu and I had to get back to our sad little lives again. But I would still be hungover so I would walk back quietly into my room, lock it and stand before a mirror. Simi Garewal’s voice would come undulating from inside the mirror and I would answer all her questions patiently, knowing when to pause, when to brush hair off my face and put them behind my ears, knowing when to say, ‘um, wellll’

The questions would all be deeply personal but it was the answers that I gave more thought to. My answers ranged from thank you speeches to curt responses to jackasses in my life back then. Never mind that today, those jackasses seem like angels I would happily give away my kidney to.

A gnawing worry would be that my sister would be standing in front of her mirror and doing the same thing I was doing. I never got around to finding out the truth until a couple of years ago when she finally confessed. Turns out she did it more than me. And even more elaborately — with a shawl and combed hair and all.

Mintu was insanely ahead of me in all aspects. Hell, she was the one who told me that Rendezvous is pronounced ‘Rondayvoo’ and not ‘Rendezvas’ as I continued to pronounce just out of spite.

Homes, Smells, and Red Oxide floors

I’m not sure that any of the homes I have ever lived in had a distinct smell. Or if they did, I don’t remember them now. What I am sure of is that other homes certainly had smells. These were either relatives’ homes or more peculiarly what I can only call tuition homes. But they were each different and very memorable.

My sister and I went to the same tuition till the 7th Standard. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if one’s sibling is a rank student then you will be jealous all your life. And my sister has always been a good student – did her homework, did extra credit, corrected people’s spellings, stayed back and helped teachers carry books, and topped the bloody class year after year. But mother still made her go to tuition so that I wouldn’t die of inferiority complex. But I think having her in tuition didn’t actually work in my favour because she was better than me even there. It just gave her another space in which to be really good at.

I knew of friends who did badly at school but they would always do well in tuitions. I saw no such thing happen with me. I was equally bad everywhere. And teachers made no qualms about hiding it. ‘Born gift’, ‘knack’, ‘natural talent’ were words that were thrown around when they talked about my sister.

Mother couldn’t control what other people said but she developed her own ways to curb my growing competitiveness. She celebrated both our births even if it was only my sister’s birthday. As far as I can remember, there were always two birthday frocks, two birthday cakes and two birthday presents. This often led people to assume that we are twins.

In Mangalore where we went to Lady hill convent, an old lady would take tuitions for us after school. She was tall, pulled her grey hair into a bun, wore gold-rimmed glasses and was only seen in nightgowns at home. My mother and aunts wore the same –only they called them nighties or maxis.

This old lady was fair and had kind eyes. I don’t know if it’s because of her but I continued for a long time after that to believe that all Christians were fair and had kind eyes. She was soft-spoken but very stern. Like one of those people who are very nice to you but you don’t want to piss them off because their meanness is already implied in the way they have been kind to you.

Her home always smelled of meat and wood. And for a long time after that, I continued to believe that Christian homes always smelled of good food and nice furniture. My father had warned us to not accept food if offered because ‘they will give you dhana mamsa’ (cow meat)

This got me more curious. But she never offered us food. I never even stepped beyond the living room. Although I tried very hard to peek into the bedroom on various occasions — she would look at me quietly and I would go back to reading.

The table we all sat at was their dining table. It was faded brown and long. There were two long benches on either side for all of us. There were nine students and we all went to Ladyhill. I did a stupid thing here, like I have done stupid things everywhere else. We were writing our finals and our third standard timetable was out – I gave this to my tuition teacher. The next day, the timetable was cancelled and we were told to wait for the new one. My tuition teacher was anxious when I told her about this. She said to let her know when the new timetable is announced. I forgot about it but she called twice that week to find out. The third time she called; I felt bad so I made up a fake timetable and dictated it to her over the phone. I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps because I didn’t want her to be upset or because I was tired of saying no.

Next morning, things got very unpleasant. I was mugging multiplication table for twelve when Miss Rose, my class teacher dragged me by the ear to meet Madam Principal. Apparently they frown upon things like leaking fake timetables.

At tuition the same day, my teacher pretended like nothing had happened, like my parents weren’t called to be questioned, like I wasn’t hauled out of class and yelled at. I was determined to look angry – here I was trying to protect her happiness and she goes around calling the school to confirm the timetable I had given her.

I don’t know what happened to her after we left Mangalore for good. But everytime I think of her, I remember the smell of her home and her eyes. The skin around her eyes was loose and white and wrinkly. I would often wonder what it would be like to poke it. But I was so convinced that the skin would just stick to my finger, like hot wax.

The other tuition class I remember very well was in Belgaum. This one was a stone’s throw away from home and the lady here was rather old. She had a small head full of white hair and she had wise eyebrows that would disappear under the creases every now and then. I looked only at her eyebrows when she taught. I like to think all her wisdom came from the eyebrows.

She wore cotton nighties with lacework down the front. The home had red-oxide floors and we would sit in the veranda on a bamboo mat.  I had a spot I liked to sit on – it was in the corner, and a window opened right above my head. I had marked my corner on the mat – I would dig holes with my pen to open up the bamboo lining. I don’t think she noticed it and if she did, she never mentioned it. Her home had a musty -old lady smell to it. After a point, I couldn’t tell if it was her smell or the home’s. Either way it wasn’t a pleasant one. I would take a deep breath before I entered and would hold it in for as long as I could. And when I couldn’t hold it in any longer, I would exhale and take all the smell in one quick swoop.

Near the gate was a small pond with a moss green spread on top. My sister and I would sit here sometimes after tuitions. There were a couple of frogs with creepy eyes. Barring that, I didn’t see anybody else living with the old lady. I heard very often about a son who left her but I never saw him or her husband. She lived alone. Sometimes when we were leaving, I would turn back to see her standing by the gate, waving at us. I wondered what she would go back home to. She had no TV and nobody to talk to.

I think my father made us stop going to her tuition because he saw no improvement in our marks. He made mother go tell her we won’t be coming anymore. I felt a little bad but got over it quickly because mother decided she would teach us so we didn’t have to go to tuition anymore.

Much later when we moved to Bangalore and started our tuition, I found it strange to go to homes that didn’t have old ladies. The first one that I went to had a middle-aged lady and sometimes her husband and their daughters. The oldest one I saw very rarely. But from what I could gather, she had an interesting life. She had male friends who would drop her home and hang out later. This made my father be very cross with her.She went off to the US after a while.

H – The lady’s niece was my age. She had been living with them after her father passed away. She was a quiet girl who would walk to school and back. Her uniform was a brown skirt and a white shirt. Her hair was combed tightly into the neatest partition I have ever seen. She wore two ponytails and let them hang by the shoulders. From the edge of my terrace, I would watch her walk down the street in the evenings. She would walk with her head bent down, carrying a water bottle with a big white cap. And every day I saw her empty the bottle into a plant near the gate. When I started tuition, I noticed how quieter she seemed. They all spoke Marathi and I found myself growing amused with words like zhaale and haal. Often I would see H – all cried out and red-eyed. P, her cousin would say ‘She is missing her father’

The next home I went to was interesting. An old couple lived right behind our house with their two children. The boy was in senior year, degree and the girl had just started college. I don’t know how but my sister got out of tuitions here and it was only my brother and I. The lady taught us from 4:30 to 6:00. At 6:00, her husband would wake from his nap, sit in the hall, his legs folded up on the chair and ask for tea. Occasionally, my brother and I were given snacks.This home too, had a red oxide floor with green borders.

My first day in each of the tuition homes has been very scary. It took a while to get used to the people who lived in these homes, the mosaic floors, the red-oxide floors and the smells. The tuition homes also meant that the children who grew up here had to have been rank students. They were doing something right in these homes that I wasn’t doing in mine. They woke up at the right time, drank milk without throwing any down the sink, they did their homework at the same time every day, they went out to play at the same time every day. In so many ways, these homes reminded me of what a perfect student’s life must be like. It never occurred to me to look into my sister’s. I was fascinated with these homes just as much as I was afraid.

I couldn’t imagine living in these homes after 6:00 pm. It made me very depressed to look at red-oxide floors in the night. It is strange how I don’t remember the men in these tuition homes at all. I don’t remember what they looked like or what they said.

Stranger still is the fact that even after all these years, I have forgotten what the homes looked like but their smells have never left me.