O for Onion

20200417_161044

In English, I always pause before pronouncing it (Anion or Onion?) I once bought a wooden chopping board because it’s how onions were chopped on cooking shows. Needless to say, the board broke in half & was last seen sitting mutely above the fridge. Ajji sliced the Kannada eerulli sitting on an ಈಳಿಗೆಮಣೆ (elige mane) as gleaming slices of onions fell wordlessly into the wet steel plate under it. Amma chopped the Konkani’s Piyav on a ಲಟ್ಟಣಿಗೆ (Chapati rolling pin) standing by the kitchen slab, the rim of her nightie always touching the floor. 

It’s perhaps among the first few things we learn to cut. Growing up, if you were given onions to cut, it meant that you were inaugurated into a semi-adulthood of sorts. In Jain college, where I studied in 2005, this meant nothing. It was believed that items made of potato(even lays), garlic, & onion weren’t sold in the canteen. Even the man making samosa burgers outside the college sold what were called jain burgers (if they can sell air in chips packets, they can also eat samosas without alu it seems) 

Couple-friends practiced a kind ‘no-onion no-garlic’ pact at lunch if the evening had been brimming with a possibility of kiss. Years ago, an old love had been angry with me for eating onions with my naan & mutton at lunch which caused the evening to no longer brim with anything & I grew wary of eating them outside home.

The Savarna idea that what you eat shouldn’t cause discomfort to others was punctured beautifully at a writing workshop organised by the Dalit Women Fight in Delhi. The buffet had the regular rice, roti, chicken, dal, salad. And I noticed that the only thing that kept getting over & that the waiters had to keep bringing in were onions. It’s the only time I’ve seen anyone eat onions freely in public, and not even as a side to the main but as if it were the only main. I felt immediately at home where Appa suspects anything that isn’t full of onions, and Amma can only eat Maggi with a side of raw onions.

There is as much joy in eating it raw as there is in listening to the sprinkled crunch of its cutting. I imagine it to be the sound of the sandpapery touch of salt. A student once broke into mad laughter even before he’d finished narrating the story of his Kannada speaking friend who was desperate for some onions in his chaat & had hurriedly said ‘bhaiya, thoda pyar dena’ instead of pyaz. 

P for Pleasure

20190629_101313

On the last day of school, before we closed for vacation, I ran after a girl I really liked, patted her on the shoulder & hugged her because I thought we hadn’t said bye properly. I don’t remember if I cried because I was going to miss her or because I wanted her to know I was already missing her. When I walked back home, my body fought to forget how weakly she’d hugged back. And when I imagined the hugs she gave her other friends, I wanted to take mine back.

In college one day, I got terribly sick. The fever had fangs & I was shivering. She gave me her brown sweater which I took home. I didn’t take it off when I lay down. I slept with it & dreamed of her smell. The smell left the day she told me that I was too conscious of marks. I wanted to say ‘so are you’ – but my stomach swallowed the words.

She & I went shopping for bras in Shivajinagar. When we tried them on later that evening, I told myself that this was the only kind of intimacy I ever wanted to know. She taught me how to make masala bhurji. She made milky sweet tea. When we ate KFC chicken, she pinched me for not sucking meat off the bones properly. She once stayed up all night because the boy she was in love with didn’t call. I wanted to go to his house & beat him to a pulp.

She dropped me home after college everyday. She smelled of Lakme peach body lotion & I always caught a whiff of it as I sat behind her on activa. She came home one day to wash her hair because they weren’t letting her wash her hair at home. She was seeing her boy the next day so it was urgent. We stood in my bathroom & as she held her hair down, I sprayed water on it. The droplets fell on her neck & then danced by our naked feet. 

She held me when I wept because I didn’t know how to break up with an old love. She taught me how to use tampons & smiled when I told her I was terrified of them. We once spent an entire day drinking & talking about love, sex, & writing. Later that night, in the lift, we came very close to falling into each other but something held us back.

She wore backless blouses that made my fingers ache. She laughed like 78 parrots fluttering away from tree tops. Her lipstick rarely licked her teeth so I had no excuse to hold her face, pull her towards me, say ‘lipstick’ & wipe it off. One cold evening in Delhi, we wore dresses that tickled our kneecaps & danced to Beedi Jalaile. 

I felt seized by a pleasure that forgot weak hugs, double games, gritted teeth, heteroness & other savarna games. Finally here was a she who wasn’t afraid to fall, more shameless than anyone & didn’t believe in holding back. Later that night, as our toes touched under someone’s blanket, I concluded that no revolution is brighter than Dalit women grabbing pleasure. It is now my own thithi that I was so arrested by the moment, I didn’t do more.

Q for Qualification

Art by EV Anil
   Art by EV Anil

I’m thinking about what you were doing now, at this moment, in 1918. When you were teaching at Sydenham College, and students liked your classes but you weren’t allowed to drink water from the same jug as your colleagues. What did you do, Baba? I am haunted by which of these scenes you carried back home everyday. I am haunted by what you thought of, how you worked, what you did in powerless situations, how you picked up the stone. I want to work like you did. I want to write like you did. You had fire in your words & people are still lighting pataki with them.

When you got ready for work the next day, were you comforted by the prospect of meeting students who liked your classes or demotivated by that jug of water? What did you do after a bad class? What did you do when you were asked to prove your worth again & again?

I find little respite from watching this scene in a film about you. Before you walked into the classroom, there were whispers about your qualification & unfitness to teach. You told them calmly – “If any of you feel like I am not qualified to teach you, and would like to leave, feel happy to do so now” – and I felt lit up from within.

I wish I’d said that one morning in 2016. I wish I knew you in 2015. I wish I’d put your picture up on the wall next to my table in 2014. How powerless & hopeless those times were when I didn’t know you & your words. I was once accused of not being qualified to teach. And I let myself down by believing it was true. My degrees didn’t come to my rescue then- your words did. And now I know that you are the only qualification I’ll ever need. You know what’s funny though? When I put your picture up, they all ran away, Baba. They left skid marks.

I keep hunting for books that can give me anecdotes about you but most of them only have text-book type information. If I wanted that, I’d go back to school. But I want to know other things about you – what were you like when you were in love, Baba? What letters did you write when you were in love? What was your first kiss like? What did you like playing on the violin? Why did you not like eating? What’s with the three fishes only deal? What made you laugh? Did you like dogs or cats or both? Where did you get your suits stitched from? How did you manage to keep your giggles inside when people yammered on about Savarna merit?

I’ll tell you something funny now. That story of you falling into an ash pit from a tree & how people called you Boodisaheba & you told them “Lol, screw you peeps, I’ll be Babasaheb someday” is my favourite. I tell it to people all the time.  Some of them have very seriously come to me & said “You know that didn’t happen no?” – and I laugh out loud. Siddalingaiah knows it happened, you know it happened, I know it happened. Who are these other people & why are they after our joys?

Baba, sometimes I feel very lost & I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I take forever to notice when I am being humiliated. And when I do, it’s too late – moment’s passed, they’ve gone & I feel like throwing stones at nothing. I can’t always think on my feet & this scares me. Sometimes I forget to remember you, especially in moments when it’s all I should do to feel powerful – I still forget, and then I sit & curse myself. It’s only now that I am learning to shut up & work & not worry about responding.

I like wearing suits now because of you. Appa still wears them all the time, like Ajja used to wear them all the time. I think Appa thinks they are like sweaters. He feels warm. I used to laugh at him but now that I also wear them, I know where the warmth comes from.

Image credits: Art by EV Anil

R for Reading

20200408_181230

My memory of watching Appa read is soaked in the sound of his laughter. I cannot separate the two. He’d have a ಬೀchi (Beechi) book open on his stomach, his back straight, his fingers firm on the spine. When he began laughing, the room had to hold its breath. His belly moving, his body shaking, puffs of air escaping his mouth, he’d explain why he was laughing. There was always a man named Thimma & something ridiculous always happened to him in very Vadivelu-like situations. 

Amma & I’d wait for him to finish & demand more explanation until he gave in & revealed that he was actually laughing because it reminded him of something from his hostel days. About the time when a boy terrified of ghosts refused to pass by the graveyard after they were returning from a late night horror film, and how one of them pointed at a tree and started howling only to watch the boy scream, run & fall, scream, get up, run & fall all the way back to the hostel.

I learnt a lot about pace from watching him read. It never happened that immediately after laughing at a funny bit, he returned with more laughter. There was always time for reflection after a laughing fit, almost as if the book had to use strength to calm him down, rest his bouncing belly, make him pause. Then he’d say mchh & close his eyes for a bit.

Schools can be creatures of Brahmanical impositions. Sanskrit was shoved down throats under the garb of ‘scoring subject’, Kannada was made alien because fears of halegannada (old Kannada) were thrown around, English was desirable, English songs even more so, boy bands were cool even if they had difficult names (Enrique was/is Henry K). 

I pushed myself to mug big words in the dictionary, never quite knowing when to use them. At home, I grew ashamed of all the Kannada books & hid them behind English books with thick, impressive spines, not knowing whom they had to be hidden from. It is not ironic that I teach English for a living today but have returned to Kannada with a fervor – a kind of Sairat. Reading Siddalingaiah helped this return. Watching Big boss Kannada confirmed this. Now when I write in Kannada sometimes, I am pleased that my hand remembers it very well.

I was born into castes that whipped Kannada & Konkani together to produce a gadbad of joys that English will never understand. And yet, a man living all the way in Latin America, in fucking Aracataca who wrote in Spanish, somehow made it to a tattoo on my arm.

Last week, Appa learnt that our thread-wearing neighbour had procured enough newspapers to sell. He went & asked for Deccan Herald with great interest, bought it & also a copy of Kannada Prabha. At home, he threw the DH in a corner & read KP. He did the same thing the next day, & the next. I smiled & felt rescued. Somehow by showing & hiding, we have found our own ways to survive, read, and be taken seriously. 

S for Silk Smitha

silk-smitha_1569309945110

I first saw Silk Smitha in Halli Meshtre and got impatient with the camera which took forever to show her face. Unfortunately, in all the songs that followed, that camera remained and so did the man behind it. Same man, same camera. They were interested in her face only when it was accompanied by the sounds of moaning. And in more ways than one, the Savarna feminist aka the saree-bindi feminist (I will forever love you for coining this, Darde-discourse) is no different from a man like that. 

They both see what they want to see: a site to perform ‘perversions’ that won’t be performed on a ‘purer/fairer’ body or an opportunity to rescue a “poor, hypersexualized, lower-caste woman” who might not know better. (I don’t have to explain why I am more uncomfortable with the latter)

All I can say is that if you’re having sex, neither the man behind that camera nor the saree-bindi feminist will care about your pleasure. They will come and go.

Is there another way of looking at Silk Smitha then? She doesn’t make it easy to answer this and maybe she doesn’t have to. What she still brings on screen are possibilities that are not easy to confront. What do you do with a woman who has paid so much attention to a body alone in pleasure & its need to submit to shamelessness — that she is able to imitate the same tremor, bend, gesture, and moan when not alone and for a roomful of crew and cameras?

At the end of Love me allow me to love you, the ‘actual heroine’ of the film arrives to watch Shankarnag and Silk Smith rolling on the grass in some park, hugging and kissing. She tears them apart, calls Silk Smitha a ‘dirty bitch’, slaps her and throws her into a pond. Many have pointed out that this was the tragedy of Silk Smitha – that despite the power she held over men and women alike, she was, in the end, alone. They will say this but they won’t acknowledge caste in this. Silk Smitha’s loneliness is not very different from the loneliness of Dalit and Bahujan students who are murdered in institutions.

But I’d like to keep her alive in other ways too – by imagining & believing that she pissed people off because she taught savarnas how to have better sex. By acknowledging that no other actor was able to achieve what she was able to, that she single-handedly recognized the uselessness of savarna men. Whether it’s Ravi Chandran, Kamal Hasan, Rajinikanth or Shankarnag – all the men she acted with are so similarly boring that they are all easily interchangeable. Take all their songs, exchange the men – it won’t change a damn thing. What you’ll still see is one Silk Smitha, shining. Always.

T for Teaching

IMG-20200313-WA0004

This one is hard but it’s about love so it’s also easy. I am here somewhere, with my students. Behind us, on a screen is a black & white photo of Joan Didion. It was my idea to have her there. Let’s take a picture & send it to her, I told them. And they indulged me, like they always have.

We read a lot of Didion this semester. We memorized words on Self-respect, hoping it would give us some. We watched her on screen as she moved from one beautiful shot to another, we watched as she called herself wife – never quite becoming one, we watched as she became a widow – never quite seeming like one. And as always, I came out learning more than I taught.

Something the English Department is always accused of is all play, no work. We apparently only screen films in our classes and do nothing else. How cute. If that accusation was worth dignifying with a response, I’d have done that long ago. But as Prof. AM always reminds me, ‘Our work is our defence’ & that seems enough of a response – for now, and forever.

But I’ll tell you why I like watching things with students – half the time I am not even watching the screen, I am watching their faces. I want to see the little things that delight them, I want to know what makes them smile, what makes them forget their phones, what makes them laugh like lizards coming out of nowhere suddenly. And it’s what I am also hungrily looking for when we read & write together. I’ve had my share of miseries with students, yes. But what I’ve also had is their friendship & their laughlets.

I wouldn’t know what teaching is without stories, without laughing, without rain. And in my mind, I am forever teaching in the way Machado’s The Husband Stitch is narrated. I’ve gotten royally burnt for being so ambitious but I will never stop.

And today, I am grateful for never having stopped – even on the darkest days, when there was no rain, even when I felt like quitting & running away, even when I was empty of stories, even when I was made to believe that I suck at this. And there are days when I really really do, but it’s never enough to make me want to give up. Ambedkar’s blood y’all. And for most other days, there’s chai.

U for Uppitu

In school, they called it concrete for the gravel-like mixture taste it left behind. In my dabbas, it stuck stubbornly in a way I imagined only rice had the authority to. Often, I had to plunge the spoon into its middle & make a cave to be able to get in. But such fake stubbornness – for in my mouth, it came apart like things that are not meant to come apart. This was followed by a fascination with the way in which my parents ate everything, especially idlis & uppitu.

When I made faces at cold, spongy idlis, Appa would say ‘Idli tinakke punya maadirbeku (you should have done some virtue in life to eat idlis) And Amma, in the hope that I’d perhaps eat everything if it was made more tasteless, began mixing everything with curd, even uppitu.

Appa & Ajji ate it with a half-cut lemon sitting sharply on their plates. They squeezed the life out of it, its juice never enough so there would always be more lemons waiting. And I, watching – never tired of imagining the sizzle it would leave on the tongue, never gathered courage to taste it. I don’t know when in my damn adulthood I fell in love with uppitu. My guess is that I love the process of oggarane (Acclimatization in English it seems avar janmak isht benki haaka) so much that I have grown to like everything that comes out of it.

I now like to take it off the stove when it is still mushy & the water still bubbling, popping, threatening. I like its semi-solidity in the plate when it falls with a plop. The spice is never gentle, and the bele – the only crunchy thing in this wildly hot mess – comes & goes consistently, while the tomato slips itself quietly, leaving its taste somewhere. Soon, I was submitting it to cold buttermilk topped excessively with coriander. And lemon, which I now realise is the true culprit. It rescues uppitu when left on the stove for too long and adds the most joyous sting if eaten when still mushy.

It taught me to give things a chance & I continue to find it strange that the most boring vegetarian breakfast item also taught me to never judge a dabba by the hisses it produces in Brahmin schoolmates.