Laugh like Sumitra

For as long as I can remember – I have always been a stalker, first, a writer second. Even when I am not writing, I am stalking. It isn’t worrisome because if stalking happens then can writing be far behind?

I have spent some spectacular nights on my phone jumping from website to blog to YouTube interviews of women writers I’m madly in love with. It’s usually the kind of night that spreads itself neatly on my bed till 4 in the morning – my body gently breaking from all the postures I have been trying, my eyes tired and watery, and my head brimming with inspiration.

So what am I trying to learn from them?

In the beginning it was mostly about learning how to say fuck off. Even now, I’m afraid, I’m still learning the same thing. But please understand that at various points in life, women need different degrees of being able to say fuck-off. The fuck-off that you imply at home for instance is a lot different from the fuck-off you want to scream outside. 

Beyond this is another freak show behaviour on my part. I’m obsessed with a strange desire to know everything about these women’s lives – who were their bullies in college? How did they fight back? How old were they when they first fell in love? When was the last time they cried? Do they use napkins or tampons or cups? Do they decide what to wear for work every day or do they just throw something on? How did they begin writing?

In the early 2000’s – the idea of a working woman in my family was radical. Her education, on the other hand was not radical because it was necessary to keep an engineer bride ready for a double-graduate groom. It was maybe more than necessary – it was meritorious.

Today, unmarried women in their late 20’s instinctively learn to show their middle-fingers at people who bug them about marriage and babies.

In the urban space therefore, even if I know many, many working women – it gives me a kind of high when they have work problems. My sister Bubbly’s work involves numerous conference calls when she is at home. Sometimes she sits with her laptop, her eyes scrunching at all manner of squiggly codes. I derive an odd pleasure from watching her work. One such busy morning, she was on a conference call when she was interrupted by a brother trying to wave at her. She shot him one killer look before going back to her call.

I love this. It’s incredible to see women being busy in a world that is just theirs. Kind of like a Bechdel pass. Bechdel fails are almost heartbreaking to watch- where female friendships are compromised because playing out to male fantasies or impressing men becomes more important. This is where Ferrante wins. In her world, there is neither any place for male fantasies nor for women who make everything about men.

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I’m wondering also, if things in my past could have been handled better – meaning- without losing calm and foresight. I’m not going to get into the details here because I have already written about it in several other posts. But just what is a decent response to bullies?

My friend says that being unavailable to attacks or the attackers is one way to go about it. You don’t give them space – either in your life or in your head. It’s the only response that merits many degrees of coolness in my opinion. The unavailability isn’t physical. Although that’s a good beginning. It’s mostly emotional, intellectual even. When you don’t talk about them or about yourself in relation to them and their attacks – you outgrow them, you take away power from them. They become small when you focus on something else – your work for instance.

Being unavailable doesn’t mean not caring. It’s this rock- star ability to make attackers cringe by laughing at them. Which means that you care but just not enough to satisfy them – you care, but only enough to laugh at them.

Say a co-worker has an opinion about you and your competence, and has said shitty things about you to people who are directly related to your work – like students maybe, or clients, or people you are in a business partnership with – what do you do then?

Do you call them out for being unprofessional? Do you do major drama? Or do you just ignore it?

Here is a thing I wish I had done – I wish I had laughed at them. I wish my body had filled itself with an untamable Dalit energy and I’d laughed in their faces. Gogu Shyamala’s Saayamma has this energy. So does Devi’s Dopdi. 

A short-story I once wrote has a woman named Sumitra leaping wildly, beating her chest and laughing at a man she hates very much. I don’t know where the energy to write Sumitra came from. It was based on an incident narrated to me. I gave her mad things to do because by then, somewhat of a mad woman was living inside me. 

I’d like to believe that all Dalit women are naturally equipped with a capacity to laugh menacingly. How? I don’t know but they just do. Someone once said that a good, strong laugh is one that shrinks cocks down. It is true. Nothing shrivels a cock and savarna pride more than the loud and ‘vulgar’ laugh of a Dalit woman.

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Fair Night

There is a man at the fair who wears thick wooden hoops on his thin, dark arm. He stands inside and will only come to you if you pay him 10 rupees for 5 hoops. And then he goes and stands back in the corner again. The first two buttons on his loose, white shirt are always undone. I put my arm over the railing and wonder if he is watching. I wonder if he isn’t already tired from watching countless tiny girls making terrible aims at dolls, toy cars and teddy bears. I aim for the doll in the nice blue dress with the sparkly wings. I miss all three times. And then I aim for the packet of Parle G biscuits which I get. I am frowning and pa is now pulling me by the arm to take me over to where ma is standing with my little sister. She has made my sister try all of the three frocks which now lie crumpled and decided on the dirty chair. I look at her tired face and want to hit her. Ma has picked the same three frocks for me. Whatever I get, my little sister gets. That’s how it has always been.

Pa says that he doesn’t want to eat anything and ma says that we can always go back home and she will make something for us. Pa says no to that although I know he wants to eat karimeen sambar again. I wish we don’t. I want to eat Chinese but before I can say anything, Pa has spotted a Dosa point that will give you 33 different dosas and before I know it, I am being pulled into the tiny room with the four tables squeezed next to each other. It smells odd here – old and chipped walls, smelly table top and a tall, steel glass that I push away. Ma orders 4 masalas. I don’t want to eat it but I believe I am old enough to know that in this battle, mothers always win. I tear big pieces of the Dosa and dump it in the space between the table and the wall. I make sure that no one notices, especially the waiters.

On the way back home in our green Omni, I look at my little sister who is fast asleep. Her flabby cheeks are dancing sideways and I want to tear them off. She looks peaceful in her sleep and this annoys me very much. The road looks empty and noiseless. The street lights fall in neat box-like patterns on my lap and I play a game. I must poke in between all the yellow spaces that form and must hurry before the next one comes. Till we get home, I play this game. I miss just the one time.

In bed I cannot sleep so I keep shifting positions until I find one that allows me to look at the moon. The only thing that disturbs me is pa’s loud yawning. He is sitting in the hall watching TV. Every now and then, his mouth makes a loud quadrilateral and yawns terribly. And since then, I cover myself up fiercely whenever I hear a male yawn.

Penance

British Council organised a short fiction workshop with writer Jahnavi Barua last weekend. This isn’t my first attempt at fiction. But I don’t know what it is. Read and tell me. Thank you.

On some days Savitri hides behind the fridge and eats chicken momos. Her son doesn’t know. Ahalya, her daughter in law, knows but acts like she doesn’t. When she sees Savitri afterwards, she turns her head determinedly, refusing to make eye contact. Karthik first brought the momos two weeks ago; Savitri found out from the warm peppery smell in his bag, caught him and admonished him for eating gopi’s manchuri again. The doctor won’t find your heart only, your body will be full of China, she’d said.

  • Ajji, firstly it is not gopi’s manchuri. It is gobi. Gobi means cauliflower. Cauliflower means hookosu. And I’m not eating gobi, I’m eating momos.

Same thing, she said and then slyly asked for a bite. Karthik giggled. He wasn’t going to tell her that it had chicken. His eyes widened and as she took her first bite, he began making rooster noises. Ajji, you are eating chicken, he finally said. He wondered if she was going to collapse but she didn’t move and her face had the kind of smug satisfaction that was only seen when her son yelled at Ahalya for putting too much salt in sambar.

That her 18 year old hippie grandson had just destroyed her 72 year old Brahmin life didn’t seem to worry her even a little bit. After attacking three momos she went to have bath. The geyser was off so Karthik assumed she was having cold water bath as penance in the freezing mad winter. Since then she has been smuggling chicken momos into the house through Karthik every week. She gives him 50 Rs extra to keep his mouth shut. If your appa finds out, then I won’t be able to show my face to him, she’d pleaded.

But soon she started worrying. Often she’d sit huddled in the pooja room in a catatonic state, muttering and chanting prayers Karthik had never heard before. When Karthik told her that he didn’t feel bad about eating chicken because he removed his sacred thread before eating, she wondered if things would have been easier if, like Karthik, she could also be just not Brahmin for a few minutes every day.

She slowly started to take it all out on her son. She banged his coffee on the table every morning and growled at him whenever he asked if her leg was ok.

On Ganesh Chaturti, she told Karthik to bring her 2 plates of momos. When Savitri and Ahalya sat together in the kitchen making paysa for the pooja, Savitri asked her if she’d ever tasted chicken. Ahalya was silent for a long time and when she could no longer bear it, she said that she didn’t care about the gods but her husband would never forgive her if she ever did such a thing. Savitri withdrew into a corner that evening and devoured both plates of momos after which she went straight to bed. No penance that night.

(to be continued) (or not)

Another Sunday

I went to sleep over at N’s last night. The plan was ripe and had vaguely been discussed over the phone in the midst of all knowing giggles. ‘I’ll bring wine, we’ll write.’ I didn’t bring wine and we wrote a little. The place had changed a lot from the last time I was there. The tiles were cooler and the walls were whiter than I remember. The couch was soft and warm, she’d been sitting there. We sat at the table for a little while and I opened the many drafts I’d saved. I added a sentence to each of these drafts and closed them all. Later N and I showed each other what we’d been writing over the week.

Her new one is about a girl who has to stay home because of a fever and then when she goes back to school – the boy she had a crush on has fallen for her friend. Mine was about a boy who works in a college canteen. He is very curious about the order of nature and refuses to accept that it’s just chance that makes people get a leg piece from the big boulder of chicken biryani he scoops from.

We talked about college, swimming, and sarees. We decided that it’s time I wore one. I mentioned Heteroglossia. I didn’t even know that I remembered the word. When I’d learnt all about it in M.A, I thought it’d be one of those words that would escape me and then years later when I’m explaining it to somebody, I would remember the meaning but not the word. It would have to be googled. But last night, it just popped out of my mouth – as if it had been sitting there all evening, waiting to come out.

At 12:15, N gave me her copy of Electric Feather – a book of erotic stories. The cover is off-white and the spine is a dark purple. On the front, there is a picture of the same book hidden under a pillow – its purple spine shamelessly showing from the gap between pillow and the bed. My eyes are already heavy when I start reading it. I have to read a page over and over again because each time I read it, I realize that I haven’t read it at all. At 12:45 I give up and snuggle under the circle warmth of the rug.

In the morning, we eat Idli and Vada. We make plans to go out. We don’t consider writing just then. When we talk about going to Glen’s, I can picture us there. I have already picked out the table we are going to sit at, and the soup I’m going to order. We stop at Health & Glow for a while and I gather the courage to pick up exotic shampoos in fruity colored bottles. At the counter, my courage skims and becomes a thin line of what ifs. I return the exotic shampoos and buy the more comforting Pantene.

On our way to Glen’s, we decide to be adventurous and go instead to Café Mezzuna.We’d heard enough about its dessert platter. The glorious Cheesecake – Crème brûlée – Chocolate Mousse – Pannacotta combo. Mezzuna is in a basement but looks a lot like a rooftop coffee shop. We order us some chicken and barely soup, bassa fish, coffee and creme brulee.

N and I can comfortably sit with each other in silence. Now and then, she will suddenly burst into a string of laughs and then nod as if in agreement with herself.

I had started reading the electric feather. This time, I picked a story by Paromita Vohra called Tourists. It’s about two people whose fondness for chocolates and their livid attractions for each other take them back in time to 1977 Andaman & Nicobar. And here they discover that in this strange house, nobody can see them or hear them. Like a Bollywood movie, the plot thickens and thickens, often only interrupted by gorgeous sex scenes. They fuck like bunnies all over the house. It’s a perfect sex getaway. And then I giggled joyously when I read that one morning they wake up to find Indira Gandhi in their bedroom. She of course, cannot hear them or see their naked, exhausted bodies. This was the best sex story I’d read in a long, long time.

My Sunday took off to a great start. On my way back home I had to buy a new helmet because somebody robbed my old one. It was only when I was nearing home that I realised that this new one was awfully tight and left me with a throbbing headache when I finally removed it.

Anyway, I had a sudden desire to watch old TV shows so I spent the rest of the evening downloading Bewitched and watching the movie adaptation. If all my Sundays this year can promise to be this fulfilling, I don’t mind dying next year.

Stillness

He was the wood behind a strong table he sat by. She, the cushion she sat on. His feet clasped around the bulk of another chair, he sat reading a book with her every afternoon. Soon it would be time for her to leave. The wind was a nosy neighbour today, pressing its paws on the tightly shut windows. It would come whistling by only to be broken with a loud rupture. Now and then he would look up and smile a smile that can only come from just having read something you have thought of previously, but never had the patience nor the desire to word it the way the writer has. She would look at him and wonder if he had reached that part of the book yet. She couldn’t say. She remembered smiling her way through that book, not knowing which smile went where now.

After an hour of exchanging prolonged sighs and ignoring cramps in the small of their backs and the tightness around their necks, she would stand up urgently as if to compensate for an hour of listlessness. She would walk slowly now, all urgency forgotten and walk the length of the tall windows that appeared carved on the big wall.

Inching closer to the window, she would gently put her head on the glass, and try to measure the wind with her eyes and ears. Almost fearing the unkemptness of hair that the wind would bring, she pauses before opening the window. Bravely, she thrusts the window open lest it should come crashing back. Today, it would not. There was a guarded stillness in the air that didn’t quite match up to how it looked before the window was thrown open. It seemed as though her opening of the window had caused this sudden pause, this spiralling downwards of noise into itself, how in noisy supermarkets sometimes by co incidence, everything and everybody just quiet down. The music stops first and then the hushed cacophonies of customers and their trolleys and in a moment of decisiveness, everybody looks up to see if all is well in the world.

It was in this moment of an overstretched yawn, of the pulse not coming back to its milder other half, of an echo, eerie than death itself that she saw a grey dog biting into the calm and running for its dear life. A second later, the land exploded, pulling everything down to dust.

Love Built on Discord

I read this short story today and want to believe it changed my life. So often you find yourself midst couples who are so into each other, it becomes difficult to converse beyond a point because your eye wanders, and now you see his hand cupping her waist, now you see her finger tracing his jawline, her leg on his thighs, his hand on her butt. This is the kind of distraction outperformed only by awkward silences.

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My favourite lines are — “The atmosphere was humid with his and his wife’s mutual attraction. All four of us were distracted by it as we spoke. The two of us were acting in accordance with a new law of the universe, the conservation of romantic energy, which meant that an increase in their affection had to be balanced by a decrease in ours”

Read the story here

Dragonfly

Her eyes drooping with sleep, she got out of bed in her first attempt. Last night had been crazy. The apartment was now spinning fast with squares of bright light flashing her with devotion. She sat down and put her head under her knees. It didn’t help. As she made the fourth attempt to get up and fetch water, somebody had discovered the door bell and was going at it enduringly. She looked at the rusty old clock she had inherited from her great grandmother. 11 ‘O’ Clock. Over the years she had learnt to neglect the growing archaic den her apartment had become. The dust didn’t bother her anymore because they came with the things that were handed down to her, from a generation of people that kept things, too many things in the places they breathed and ate.

She recognized the woman at her door from the bag she was carrying. Our woman had been glaring at the bag all of last night, trying to identify the brand from the spectacular distance that had separated them and over all the tall glasses and the noise around them. It took her a while to recollect the name of the place they had seen each other at. Roofies? Floories? Gloria’s?

– ‘I saw you at Dragonfly last night’, said the guest, even as her host squinted her eyes into tiny round balls.

-‘Oh, yes! What can I do for you’?

-‘I came here to tell you to leave him the hell alone. I saw you glaring at us last night and he’s quiet upset’

‘But – I, wait, who are – ‘

‘I only came here to tell you that. Good bye’

As she saw the woman hurry past the gate and into the car, she wondered if she should run after her and demand an explanation. But she was too hungover to do that or the next sane step, which was to call Aaquil and ask him if he had any idea what this meant. She would have dragged herself back in but her silk robe got caught in the giant cactus that stood next to the door. She cursed and nearly died of exhaustion trying to rescue the robe without perforating holes in them. Unlike everything else in her apartment, this robe she was rather fond of. She wore it every night and never washed it. Her friends never got why she complained so much about all the antique hand me downs she had acquired.

She had always wanted to design her own place to her own taste when she got it. But because it took so long to figure out what her taste was like, her family had decided that the empty spaces in her apartment looked ugly and that it was the best home the family collections could ever get. So at the far end of the apartment stood a giant mahogany cot that was obscenely polished and seemed to hurt most eyes because of ugly carvings of goats and grapes at all four ends of the cot. She had done her best to hide the carvings and finally decided that wet towels do the trick. A grotesquely huge bookshelf stood at the other end of the apartment which looked rather embarrassing because she had owned only 2 books in her life and read one. The bookshelf had slowly become home to assorted key chains and jewelry and currently displayed all of the 80 sandals she owned.

A tall coat hanger stood to the door’s left. It was a naked woman with bulbous breasts that her friends sometimes used to hang their bags on. This piece belonged to her perverted uncle whom the family eventually disowned but chose to keep all of his furniture.

She forgot all about the bizarre conversation as she curled into her bean bag and slept until the doorbell rang again. This time it was him. She knew this because she had suddenly realized who the bag woman was talking about.