THE PROF. BARBRA NAIDU PRIZE FOR THE PERSONAL ESSAY 2021 – BREAKING AWAY

Announcing the ninth edition of The Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay. The theme for this year is Breaking Away. Here is a little something on how I understand it.

I often dream that I’m running a relay race. The audience is a stadium full of people cheering for me, and a small yawn of people rolling eyes. That’s their only job — both in my dream, and in their life. In the beginning, I ran against boys who were annoying classmates, and when it no longer thrilled me, I ran against annoying boys I was teaching. A pataki female student and I are usually up against this boy and his friend. When pataki gives me the baton, I run with grit in my teeth, calves, and veins. The boy is far ahead of me and going to win. My mind speeds this part along because a) I am not a runner and b) within seconds, I am anyway already running next to him. At this point, the audience erupts in cheers. Their faces are indignant with vengeance on my behalf. I don’t know what the yawn of people look like because nobody cares about them. My own face is part grit- part replaying every humiliating account from my teaching life. I break away from the boy in the slowest way possible and when I cross the finish line, everything goes black and I am panting a lot but mostly dying.

I didn’t know this then but what I was imagining and getting thrills from is a moment called ‘breaking away’. Like breaking away from a group you no longer believe in — or from someone you used to be held captive to — or from a pack when you are racing and getting closer to the finish line. The moment is charged with the erotics of being free.

Sometimes it’s not easy to see the things that bind us to people. We believe we are free because we seem to walk just fine when the leash is long enough. Nothing is holding us back because whatever is holding us back is following us so closely, they don’t need to hold us back, and we don’t need to feel held back.

That’s why breaking away is so glorious. Suddenly there’s more of you for yourself.

What I like most about breaking away is that there is no time to self-congratulate or self-pity. It’s an extremely short-lived moment — there now, gone next. Perhaps it’s a good thing that these moments don’t come with pause buttons. What do we expect to find there anyway?

When I first heard of breaking away, I thought it was breaking up. The difference, as I understand it now was made clear by Kate Winslet’s face in ‘The Holiday’. After being in love with a jerk for over three years, she finds gumption one evening to break away.

In the moment that I am talking about, they’ve already broken up with each other multiple times but he keeps coming back to see if she’s still there and leaves when he is convinced that she is. It’s probably because breaking up with someone still means it’s with. Breaking away, on the other hand is always from someone or something. The only way to go after breaking away is forward. Kate Winslet’s face sees this, understands this, and we get to watch it dawn on her.

When I fantasise about breaking away these days, it’s not a race anymore, it’s a happy dance and no one is around to cheer, frown or roll eyes.

What is your breaking away story?

The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2020 – Making Do

***Disclaimer and announcement both attached***

My mother grew up in a house full of children. They were 7 but it always seemed like they were seventeen. And because there were so many of them, I imagined them all in a large and crumbling bungalow with squeaky, uneven staircases. I have neither lived in this house nor seen it. But years ago, I caught a passing glimpse when it was pointed out to me from a speeding auto. I stuck my neck out and saw what appeared to be a small house, heaving on its haunches surrounded by piles of bricks and cement. The house, as it turns out, had always been small – only its ghost in its own stories had been big like my mother’s laugh, which is loudest when she laughs with her two sisters.

It is louder when she laughs soundlessly- her eyes watering, face contorted, cheeks red, belly shaking, the rest of the body motionless on the floor – which is were they sat – her and her sisters – chattering endlessly, reminding each other of what they’d done as children.

All their stories are marked with a kind of poverty that they never learnt to forget. The one they often narrated involved a month-long wait to watch Amar Akbar Anthony in a theatre. The oldest earning member of the family, their brother (then 22) had to be convinced. Money had to be earned. So they took turns in selling more bags of tea powder than usual.

Finally, they made a small bag full of coins which couldn’t jingle because it was that heavy, and wound very tightly with a rubber band. Preparations began 3 days before the show. Clothes were washed and left to dry until they were warm and crunchy. They were then put under the beds and left to self- iron.

On the day they were supposed to go, the rain wouldn’t stop, the theatre was far away and they had to change two buses to get there so they decided to go the next day. At this point while narrating the story, my mother and her older sister took turns to imitate their middle sister who, when she was told they couldn’t watch the film that day – had rolled on the floor, beaten her chest and wept. She had made the most earnest preparations to watch the film that evening, so she spent a good few years after that being very angry with rain. Finally, they all got to watch Amar Akbar Anthony and it is perhaps one among the very few films that my mother didn’t mind us watching on repeat.

All the other houses my mother found after that could never become homes. How could they if she had to light a dozen agarbattis everytime she cooked fish? Or if she had to pretend we weren’t home when owners came to ask rent or complain about something?
***
Appa grew up in hostels more than in homes. He tells his stories like Siddalingaiah did – with a lot of heart and stomach. And because his laugh comes from somewhere deep inside his stomach- when his belly shakes violently, it is curious how the laugh comes out of his mouth in whispers, not sounds.

Pranks make him laugh, prank videos make him laugh more, Vadivelu makes him laugh, people who fall, fart, flee make him laugh. His favourite classroom story is about a boy whose bum was apparently pinched a lot, especially right after he gave attendance – so every time he said “Yes saar” – it was always followed by aiiiiieeee.

When my father imitates the boy’s aiiiiieeee, his face never betrays the expression of a properly pinched bum.

I eat these stories the same way I have eaten all their other stories – their humiliations in college, defending themselves against the gods of merit, not having money or food, being bullied for not being good enough, not knowing how to talk to people, and dealing with unkind, ugly, casteist institutions.

These stories live together, not because my parents wanted them to. They were made to. It was how they managed with what they had, it was the only way they knew how to make-do.

This is how I have come to know ‘Making-do’ – what about you? Write and send to barbranaiduprize@gmail.com

***DISCLAIMER: For the kind souls who walk around with a Savarna checklist of political correctness and might take offence at the bum-pinching or might feel that being able to watch Amar Akbar Anthony is not Dalit enough, not poor enough: Naale banni***

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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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