Anything can happen at Knowhere

Monday, 14 December 2020, Knowhere, 10:20 PM

After half a bottle of wine, some excellent chilli beef on potato, Goan sausages, crispy prawn wafers, and beef biriyani, I was happily eating carrot halwa from a glass bowl when Mr M whispered to me, ‘Vj, your dildaar is here.’ D and K looked equally puzzled. I thought he was talking about some student so I turned around to see a bunch of grown men walking by and lost interest. But then I peeked properly and it was Saad Khan so I squealed. After partially damaging K’s arms I screamed ‘Razzak is hereeee’. I wanted to walk up to him, pat him on the shoulder and ask ‘mere koftein khaati?’

I badgered Mr M to use his utmost teacher power, walk to him and say ‘Ey basturrd, what man? I gave you attendance so now you give me autograph’ – but he just rolled his eyes. After thinking of many such scenes in my head, I gave up and booked Ola auto. It said 3 minutes so I began walking towards the exit. Saad Khan looked very posh under the yellow light and pushed back hair and nothing like my Razzak so I said chalo theek hai. Hands were sticky from biriyani and I was too lazy to go to washroom. So I stopped by the sanitiser at exit and wrestled with the damn thing. It wasn’t giving sanitiser so I kept kicking the pedal. Behind me, I could hear an obnoxiously loud man on the phone and I was thinking why only men are so loud on the phone in public places. Mr M walked calmly and told me that the sanitiser stand at the other end worked better. Obnoxious loud man was standing close to it and I could only see his periphery so didn’t want to go there. I looked at my hands and thought chalo, no saad no sanitiser in my fuckall janma and called lift.

D and K came running towards the lift. Something had happened. D was red in the face and looked flushed. She was screaming oh my god that was Danish Sait oh my god oh my god. I turned to see the fastly moving appearance of obnoxious loud man entering Knowhere. I glared at Mr M and asked ‘THAT WAS FUCKING DANISH SAIT???’

Mr M stroked his beard and said ‘ya’ with an angelic smile.

I screamed and kicked, wanting to rip that beard out. All the while I was fighting with the stupid fucking sanitiser, and when he was also telling me to use that one instead of this, he knew it was fucking Danish Sait and wouldn’t tell me? If I’d have told you, you would have screamed and embarrassed me, he said. Even if it was true, I still wanted to know he was right there when I was wrestling with fucking hand sanitiser.

Razia Razzak at Knowhere, I thought sadly and cheerily before the lift closed and my world was back to desole as the French say.

D and K kept giggling. Mr M and his beard were romancing. I cursed them all and walked to my auto.

PS – Razzak ko next time I won’t leave.

I for Inventory. Intimacy.

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One morning, I held a hot cup of tea in my hands after cutting 15 green chilies lengthwise. When the heat pulsating inwards began pouring outside, I couldn’t tell what was feeding what.

When someone who doesn’t want to laugh, laughs — I look for the line of anger on their face that suddenly hides. I worry the line will return when they are alone & I won’t be around to humiliate it into hiding again.

A friend once told me that it’s not possible to hold on to self-respect when one is in love. I felt  victorious & betrayed. Why though? It’s not like I am a mountain of self-respect when not in love.

When he drove, I liked looking at the folded sleeves of his red checkered shirt on the forearm. But I desired him most when he reversed the vehicle, and put his left arm around my seat to look back, his Adam’s apple teasing.

I get annoyed when I stand before the mirror at the end of a long day to find by bra strap peeping. Why didn’t my girls or aunties on the road tell me or better yet, put it back gently & tuck my hair behind the ear also? The only time I felt happy in convent schools was when girls would sing ‘Sunday is longer than Monday’ everytime a petticoat played hide & seek.

I don’t want feminism that takes away intimacy between women in bathrooms. Come, weep into my arms sister. I will hold you, you hold me.

When I was 6 & refused milk, Mouma pulled me to her lap & promised to show me one breast if I finished half the glass, and both if I finished the full glass, permanently ruining all possible hetero relationships for me. 

Even hickies are forgotten in hours. The warmth of chilies still hasn’t left.

O for Onion

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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. 

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.

 

The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2019 – Voyaging the Kitchen

As a child, my fascination with food came from watching appa eat. His temples bobbed in and out, as if a small, writhing organism was inside. Often I’d put my index finger on his temple not knowing what to expect – sometimes I felt a soft, warm dot moving in and out, and sometimes there was just a dull throb.

After many days of watching him eat, I understood that the temple rebelled when he ate non veg, and didn’t when he ate veg.

He’d take a chicken bone and eat out all its meat before tapping it hard on the steel plate. Then he’d suck at the end of the bone and his temples would inhale – exhale.

‘Idu yenu gotta?’ he’d ask each time, and then proceed to explain regardless of whether I said yes or no – about what bone marrow was and how strong it made our body. He said this with purpose.

Liver, bone, marrow were all meant to be consumed – not for their taste or some such rubbish but because they were there on the plate and it made us strong. When Mouma, his vegetarian mother-in-law was around, he frowned when she covered her mouth and nose with the end of her pallu on days amma made fish.

He’d say to no one in particular but loudly enough for her to hear – “Your Sai Baba hides & eats one kilo of chicken, two kilos of mutton, and three kilos of fish every day. Kal nan maga (robber my son).” Mouma would say chee chee and walk out.

***
Years ago in Vaishnodevi, we came down the hill on horseback and appa collapsed out of exhaustion upon reaching the hotel. His sugar had gone very low and I ran to the hotel kitchen to get sweets. When I raced back up, amma was standing over him with a wet towel and he was lying down, his eyes barely open, both hands on the chest. When I walked in, he looked at me mournfully and said ‘If I am ever not around, you have to make sure you give fruits to everyone at home. You have to take care, okay?’

I didn’t find it odd at all because appa’s romance with fruits is legendary. I had once caught him standing next to a Guava plant on our terrace, eating its fruit. He wasn’t plucking it off – he wasn’t even using his hands. He was eating the Guava without touching it – standing on his toes, his hands tied at the back. When he heard me laughing, he turned around and I ran inside to fetch my phone to take his picture.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked me. This is how fruits are meant to be eaten. ‘Keelbardu’ – ‘shouldn’t be plucked’

***
From the very beginning, he was one of us – especially when we watched Tom & Jerry and he smiled like a child everytime Tom opened the fridge and out came cheese, roast chicken, turkey, and sausages. He was also one of us when Amma chased my sister and I around the house for having smuggled Bournvita and Horlicks pudi again. She would barge into the bedroom, only to find bits of horlicks stuck to appa’s moustache. We would roar with laughter and Amma would say Karma and leave us alone.

***
These are only some of the many things I have come to know food by. This is my story. What is yours? Do write and send to barbranaiduprize@gmail.com
Deadline – 31st Jan 2019.

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F.R.O.G.S

This piece was written over a stretch of the first few rainy evenings in September. On the first evening, I sat at the department computer, earphones plugged in — listening to YouTube audios of croaking frogs, crickets and other night sounds.

Mangalore and Goa are two of my favourite cities because the frogs here know me well. What began as a tribute to frogs became an inward journey  into the home that I spent my childhood in.

TVs had a volume of their own here and this was the most liberating thing about the house. It was always blaring loud no matter who was around. Back home in Bangalore, every time I sensed my father’s mood swings, I wished all the TV volumes in the world would mute. But in Mangalore, rules bent themselves so neatly that we sat on them and made paper boats.

***

In the afternoons, Goa and Mangalore have the same slumberworthy capacities. The heat becomes duller, settling on the eyelids — making it heavy with sleep. And if there are trees around, the occasional rustle of the wind sends the birds into disarrayed flapping of wings, causing many hypnic jerks. The short dreams are always about birds – flapping eyelashes instead of wings. And, of aeroplanes that fly dangerously close to huts.

Read more here.

Curd Rice with Sugar

My sister falls asleep when she eats food. It’s a rare, humiliating sickness. She’s thin as toothpick and my father says that her clothes wear her and that they look fuller on a hanger. Dinner is usually at 8:00 pm and we gather around the dining table. One by one, we finish and when we take leave, we all secretly look at her plate to take note of how much food there is, so that hours later, when we look again, we can decide how much she ate.

Mother mixes sugar in everything she gives her hoping my sister will eat fast. We’ve made many innovative dishes. Upma with sugar; rice sambar with sugar; rice, fried onion, milk and sugar; dosa, milk and sugar; chapatti, milk and sugar; and the ubiquitous curd rice, also with sugar. One night, she made history.

We started dinner at 8 and finished at 8:30. Titanic was playing on Sony Max so some of us hurried to the living room, leaving my sister behind. Titanic began and we sailed on, Jack and Rose fell in love, ran, did it in the car, the ship sank, Jack died, Rose cried. Three and a half hours later, we switched the lights off and went to the dining room to see my sister fallen asleep on the table, her right hand still in the plate, her palm dotted with dried bits of curd rice, a pool of saliva slowly collecting on one side of her cheek.

Ma started beating her chest — strangely without making noise, dad sat down next to her in all seriousness, observing my sister’s calm, sullen face. They were afraid to startle her. He woke her gently almost expecting her to wake up in horror and scream. She stood up suddenly and looked taken aback at my mother’s obscenity and then took one long, pitiful look at the clock. As if setting her mind to prepare for an exam, she sat at the table again with renewed motivation and took a heavy morsel of curd rice, and dumped it into her mouth.

Swallowing it must’ve been hard considering dad who continued to look at her with all the sympathy in the world while ma was still beating her chest, now with both hands and muttering something about therapy – for her or my sister, I don’t know.