Categories
Caste

F for Flight. Friendship. Fight.

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After years of living in rented houses marked by fish fried stealthily, by the many agarbattis left alight on window sills, by the swollen rooms that held their breath every time an owner turned up for inspection, and by houses denied to us for not being Brahmin; Amma & Appa built this home from the memory of what their & our childhood eyes were thirsty for.

Appa’s govt job kept him moving & as a result, we lived in many houses from Chikodi, to Raichur to Bidar to Gulbarga to Mangalore to Shimoga to Belgaum to Bangalore. But those houses were never homes – there were enough reminders of that. 

As a child, I was preoccupied by the mystery of Duplex houses. Friends in school had these & while I was let into their verandas & halls – I never made it upstairs. ‘Wait here, she’ll come down’ – they always said & I waited to watch her come down. Often another friend, who was allowed upstairs would come down with her & I grew hungry for swirling stairs & the tight friendship that stood on top – arms linked, walking down together. Duplex houses came with duplex friendships.

When I passed by these houses, I looked only at the top half, longing to steal a glance. I imagined being invisible, walking up their stairs, & opening doors to their bedrooms. Handicapped by my own thrill of finally being able to see what lay behind, I never could open those doors. My curiosity for learning about women’s rooms persists. I want to see not just where they work, play & sleep but also how. 

The duplex is a permanent condition of a secret, of something hidden, of something that you have to work up to see. And more than wanting my own, I was desperate to be part of someone else’s secret.

Our duplex was finally built after years of saving & borrowing, but my friends from Jain college were convinced it wasn’t hard-earned. It came from what they called ‘our money stolen by your briber-father’ They talked with such self-assuredness & street-smart confidence that I couldn’t fight. This became a running joke & since I didn’t know how to defend my home, I joined them & laughed at myself. I learnt that if you gave someone permission to laugh at you, you could become their friend. But there were rules – and the first one was – you could never laugh at them.

My anger arrived one day when a rich boy whose father also had a government job became their friend & there was an unbearably loud & dignified silence about his duplex. Where did that silence come from? Why was he given the dignity of not being laughed at? I thought it was because he was a boy. I understood the games that caste & friends play much later. They were experts at diffusing codes – who came from where & therefore deserved respect – who didn’t – who can you laugh at – whose father you should be afraid of – whose father you can make fun of.

I’ve never wished for a backbone as much as I did then. But it seemed like every time I got one just enough to stand up & scream, tears came too. And who wants to stand fighting & crying when you can sit and join them laughing? Even so, their merit was so hard-earned that a day before every exam, they came to me for help. I stopped doing this in my final semester & they never spoke to me after that.

Categories
In Between

Sonal and some menstruating women

Sonal had to cook rotis for all of them today because she was the only woman at home who wasn’t menstruating. She cursed when the roti landed on the far end of the tava, leaving a thick, black line of coal on her wrist. The hob wasn’t being used today. A choola is normally used this time of the month.

Lunch is a grand affair in the Jain household. Menus are prepared in advance, telephone calls are made to husbands and fathers and brothers at the shop, to check what they wanted for dessert. The choice was between Elaichi Kheer and Shrikhand today. I sat on the slab and watched her as she rolled out more dough for a family of 13 people. 

‘Kai boliyo’ – ‘What did he say?’ asked a grandmother from a passageway that appeared to lead to the bedrooms on the first floor. ‘Kheer’, said Sonal, in a voice that wasn’t too different from her outside voice.

I had stopped wondering why North Indians call chapattis ‘rotis’ when I was distracted by colourful little vials that looked like they had all manner of Rajasthani spices in them. The Jains’ had a very interesting looking kitchen. They had an island slab in the middle of the kitchen, which was where I was sitting, dividing it from the dining area and the rest of the house. The wall was decorated with Mahogany shelves that held sets of white crockery. Above the hob was a red chimney separating lines of cupboards. The cupboards had all manner of interesting things in them. I was tempted to take a peek. I kept looking at a yellow box with a picture of a baby on it. Next to it stood a porcelain bowl, to which Sonal kept going every now and then, to retrieve chunks of rock salt.

Sonal stood next to me chopping beans now.  I looked at her standing all delicately in her white kurta – not her main clothing really. She was donned in a sleeveless white vest and jeans at the movies this morning. She had many white Kurtas that she wore outside of the clothes she wasn’t allowed to wear. It made me proud to be the only one to know what she wore inside.

This was my second visit to the Jains’ house. My first had been interrupted abruptly by Sonal who took one look at my knee length skirt and hurried me out of the door even before her mother could open her mouth properly. As we rode to college, she didn’t offer me either an explanation or a distraction. We usually rode in silence and apparently nothing had happened to change it that morning, three weeks ago.

I don’t know much about her. Except that she doesn’t laugh very much or talk very much and smokes a lot. I grew more and more curious of her with every unanswered question and every distant shrug. That’s why I had planned the day with great delight and I think I could have broken this sea of a woman if it weren’t for half her family who had to menstruate all at once today.

I yawned miserably hoping she would see that I was sleepy and would send me to her room to nap for some time and I could finally see her bedroom and where she slept and where she sat and how her mirror looked.  I yawned again. I may have overdone it this time. She looked at me with her usual bare expression and then went back to cooking. I sighed and thought of other nice Rajasthani things like the smell of her home and the paintings of Rajasthani women that adorned the walls in the dining hall.

‘Who paints?’ I asked.

‘I’, she said and coughed.

It seemed stupid and pointless to say ‘Wow, I didn’t know you painted’ but I wanted to. Something told me she knew I was withholding the urge to shake her and ask her who she was. When we ate, her shadows on the walls of Chinese restaurants looked more animated then her. Soon, it was lunchtime and one by one, all the men arrived. She looked like a carousel balancing hot rotis, easing her way from one male to another at the dining table.  I was still sitting on the slab and watching her, and them. I wasn’t unhappy or uncomfortable about the fact that none of her family members had noticed me, much less asked me to sit for lunch. I was as invisible as her in this house.

After an hour, I was watching Sonal carousel around the ladies sitting on a special white cushion arranged next to the sofa in the hall. The cushion was pulled out more than once every month for menstruating women to sit on during lunch and dinner. All breakfasts on all 5 days were served in bed, perhaps the only luxury that was offered to them all their lives. We ate on the divan and watched reruns of Comedy nights with Kapil. It was funny. Sonal snorted her way through all the moments that I wanted to laugh my ass off on so I paused and reconsidered the jokes.

Clearly, whatever it was that we shared did not last. She stopped coming to college and nobody knew why, nobody cared, actually. It was as though the last couple of months had never happened, as though all that remained were memories of a woman I wish I could have held and touched and knew. Her house was locked up when I went looking for her. The watchman said that they had gone off to Rajasthan. I didn’t miss her but it bothered me that she never thought of me as somebody who could have saved her.

I moved to another city after my graduation and forgot all about Sonal, until one evening 2 years later I saw her for the last time. She was in what seemed to be her wedding saree, a bright red. Face decked up like homes on Diwali; her hair, a giant turban of beads and silk.  If I didn’t know her, I probably would have laughed at her. She was sitting at the bus stop and smoking. She looked the same – distant and rueful. I didn’t stop to say hello or maybe I would have if she hadn’t climbed into the next bus that stopped in front of her, and just like that, in seconds, she was gone.