If I were to tell you the story of the women in my family, I would probably begin with Mouma and my aunts. My aunts are crazy in much the same way that aunts in most families are; and normal in a way that is still crazy. All the women in my family are various forms of the Metaphysical conceit.
When I was 4, I would sit on mouma’s lap with a glass of milk and refuse to drink it unless she showed me both her breasts. Soon, all my sisters started to demand this from her. We would sit around her smiling into our glasses of milk and wait for her to pull her breasts out. She must have been special because none of the other grandmothers did this. I think this is because she had lost her husband when she was rather young and not having a husband around makes old women very cool.

That’s the grandmother I remember. The other version of her is who she became when she was around her children. She had six; two boys and four girls. If I ever live to grow that old, I wish I inherit her madness. One morning she woke up having dreamt that the gods in Banaras were calling out to her. She demanded to be taken there right away. My mother laughed in her face and refused. It gave me an oddly primal pleasure to watch my mother being blackmailed first and bullied later by her mother to sponsor the Banaras trip.

Her extortion attempts are always successful because she threatens to go live with her children for ‘a few weeks’, if they don’t give her money. She knows her coming home means threatening them but it doesn’t make her sad because she makes a fortune out of it. When news of her arrival rocks the first floor of my house, the ground floor shakes with disapproval. Guestrooms are reorganised, undergarments are hidden inside lockers, bags are folded and kept away, and all the riches– shopped for carefully in various exhibitions, are stripped away until nothing but the gloomy exteriors of concrete remain.

 My Mouma, the bra thief snoops around the house for bras and chaddis regardless of how much they are torn or where, to give them away to other poorer relatives. I don’t know what she tells them when she hands it to them. I wonder if she’d collected empty Jockey boxes to fill them later with my bras and chaddis.

It’s more surprising to say this to myself but she’s also a fiercely independent woman. She prefers travelling alone and when she does, she travels in style. Hotels are booked months in advance, flight tickets are negotiated across two states – Karnataka (my mother) and Maharashtra (my Bombay aunt) and cars are arranged. Failing this, she goes AWOL for a long time and resurfaces at random points with new handbags from wherever she went but always smelling like Vibhooti. Wherever she came back from, she always smelled of Vibhooti, Marie biscuits and tea powder.

 When I ask for stories about my grandfather, I am only given one– like all those times I asked for too many things as a child and was given just the one bar of chocolate. My mother says he knew when he was going to die and that he scribbled the date on a wall in the house. He had a hole in his heart and died on the date he said he would. Nobody had time to be amazed by either this or his death because he had left behind a mountain of debt. It fell to the eldest son at home to take care of that and his siblings’ education.

My mother says she owned only two salwaar-kameezes when she went to Canara College. She would wear it every alternate day and her friends were kind enough never to ask her why. My aunts have always told my sister and I that we are lucky to be born rich because we don’t have to struggle with who’s wearing what. My Bombay aunt talks fondly about a time when the eldest sister would fold her favourite white salwaar-kameez neatly and put it under the bed to iron it and how one day, she- my Bombay aunt, sneaked into the room, wore it quickly and ran for her life for a family function that the elder one couldn’t attend because she had nothing to wear.

Growing up, my aunts navigated our desires with feel-bad stories of poverty from their childhood. Every time we made a fuss about not being able to watch a Salman Khan first day first show, my Bombay aunt would tell us the story of how she rolled on the floor and wept until dawn because it had rained and flooded and they couldn’t catch ‘Satte pe Satta’s last show in a broken theatre far away from home – so far, they had to change three buses to get there.

For a long time, I didn’t know what my mother’s caste was. I knew we were low-caste but whenever I asked for the name, I was told it was GSB. I knew that couldn’t have been right because Mouma said it all too hurriedly, like she wanted to say it fast and get it over with, like she had rehearsed it so often and so well that it had seemed a waste to throw it at a family member, instead of a stranger.

My mother, on the other hand said it with a half-smile, half- embarrassed look on her face. Once, I walked in on a conversation that my mother was having with Bubbly, my cousin.

-You should’ve told them no? That we are GSB.
-I told them but they didn’t look convinced
-Next time just remember to say GSB before anybody asks.

When I asked Bubbly about this conversation years later, she imitated my mother’s half-smile and told me that our ancestors were, for lack of a better word, ‘Nachnewaalis’ (dancers) and that’s why, collectively, they had all agreed on calling themselves GSB to avoid unpleasantness. Confused, I asked her why we had to hide it.

She said that that was because some of the Nachnewaalis were also prostitutes. I was 23 when I found out about this and I remember how much this information cheered me up. I imagined myself stumbling into old account books of clients or some such in one of the rooms in our Mangalore house.

We watched Shobhana in Manichitrathaazhu one evening. All of us sisters huddled in the last bedroom where there was no sunlight and the air was thick with the smell of Kannan Devan tea. For days I was convinced that I had in me, the spirit of my prostitute-ancestress. I explored all the rooms in a mad fervour to find old antiques/ jewellery/anything that looked like they didn’t belong in the house.

Sadly, all those rooms only had Kannan Devan tea powder rag-bags and one big, red old-school weighing machine. My cousins Avanti and Bubbly knew their way around the weighing machine. I looked, wide-eyed and thrilled at how they were able to use the correct weighing stones to weigh various things. I took a fancy to those weighing stones more than the weighing machine. My uncle kept that tea business for over five decades and continues to run it successfully. Even to this day, mother says she cannot stand to drink tea – green or black, the smell makes her nauseous.

My Bombay aunt and Mouma cannot stand each other because they are like each other. My Bombay aunt is the happiest woman I know because she tries. She is also one among the few people I know who have all the reason to be sad. She realised that her husband was an obnoxious person two hours after she married him. He was loud and uncouth.

Theirs was an arranged marriage. Their kundli had predicted a blissful union. In real life, she pondered over why their kundli lied so blatantly when she had to spend many nights outside the house after he had hit her and kicked her out. She didn’t leave him because she had watched and learnt what good wives do from far too many unhappy families and Bollywood movies.

Scooby was a stray dog that my Bombay aunt had taken in. He was a happy dog but ever so often he would get lonely so he would lie on the sofa and look woeful. My Bombay aunt would feel physically violated if she ever saw that dog unhappy so she would give him pep talks.

All the other colony dogs are jealous of you because you live luxuriously here with us. Don’t talk to them because they are all trying to usurp your position’.

My Bombay aunt and Mouma fight all the time. She knows that Mouma likes the other daughters more than her but what pisses her off is that Mouma does nothing to hide this. More than once I have heard my Mouma say ‘kauna gottu?’ Who knows? — when her other daughters said, ‘kasala amma teshi karta, tee ve tugeli dhuv nave?’ (Why do you act like that mother, she is also your daughter no?)

Marzipan & Cotton Sarees

I finally went to Marzipan on Tuesday. I took a roundabout of Ulsoor lake and landed at a junction I should have paid attention to much earlier. When I got there, I was relieved to find that it had an accessible parking spot – something that Bangalore has taught me to look for, so meanly.

N and I ate New york Cheesecake, Moussaka, Chicken Baguette Sandwich and downed it all with a cup of Cappuccino. Marzipan is nothing like Parisian Cafe. It’s not small and one cannot get lost in thoughts, much less eavesdrop on other people’s conversations here. The tables are all safely placed at a careful distance from each other. A corner I would have preferred otherwise is furnished with a humongous sofa, and a teapoy with Pictionary, Scrabble and other board games on it. The cushions are blue and the interiors, brown.

On the other side, there are two long wooden slabs with bar stools. Both these slabs open to glass windows. I made a mental note to not to sit by the window that opened to the view of the main road. Too distracting. I ushered myself instead, to sit by the one that opened to the empty space. But that’s for another time, when I will go there alone.

N and I read each other’s pieces. Hers was Sci-fi. Mine was about going to Bhadravathi. She wore the green dress I have seen before and have come to feel so reassured by. I see her shuffling around in her apartment wearing a red lungi and a loose white tee — wondering if she should step out, pausing to see if the green dress would do today.

I don’t remember the first time I met her. I only know she must have been wearing a saree, a blue one. N and another N I know are the coolest saree-wearers. On many an occasion, I have pondered wearing a saree like that, but that’s for a world I haven’t made too many promises in. When I wear a saree, it will be a cotton one with a blouse that stubbornly won’t match the saree.

I liked Marzipan. Its windows are big and personal. And they have the best cheesecake I have tasted in ages. It’s our new writing group place.

A Tuesday in December

Last night, I downed half a glass of wine and watched Hannah and her Sisters. I am going through a Woody Allen phase. Waking up was hard, had to skip Yoga to beat the 9:00 am traffic. I used a new soap today. It was very soapy and not creamy at all. In college, my day got interesting. After running around a lil bit to wrap up some tax documents, I – wow. I have tax documents and all. God, I feel like such a grown-up. It’s also not that scary anymore. I just need to stop being lazy.

Back in the department, I made chai and settled with Faulkner. I had to reread those three pages again. It was difficult because of all the names. But after 30 pages, I didn’t want to do anything else but read Faulkner. It’s rattling. I made two post-it notes today. Both pink. One had a list of all the reading I have to catch up on over the weekend. The other had a list of writing projects.

On instinct, I opened the London word document again. This piece was due a week after my return from Europe. It has been seven months now. It gave me troubles and that’s why I had to put it away. I had made a habit of opening it, looking at it, feeling disgusted with the writing and going back to my sad little life. This happened everyday for two months and then I couldn’t look at it anymore.

I was thinking of a short-story to show my students. A story written in second-person narrative. I read Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer and then it hit me. What I hadn’t been doing with my piece.

I sat for an hour after that and changed all the I’s to You’s. It’s more readable now and in better shape than it has been in months. But it still needs work. In class, I think they liked the Lorrie Moore story. More than their predecessors did.

After class, I wanted to write so here I am. If the other Tuesdays are like today, I will grin throughout the year. I watched Tamasha last evening. I liked the first-half of the movie. The second -half scared me. That mad storytelling  – baba is frightening. Why did he have to scream so much? The film took forever to move from screen to screen. I was perpetually worried that I was going to be stuck watching one scene for 15 minutes, which at one point did happen.

I must go to book-worm today and put my coupon to good use. I also have Marzipan to go to today. I can’t believe I am still on the lookout for my replacement Parisian. So you know what they went and did to Parisian Cafe? Turned it into some hoity-toity apartment grocery shopping dump.I am not amused.

In One Year

Normally, a post like this comes at the end of the year when I have screwed up enough to want to move out of the city, when I have embarrassed myself in front of people I could only imagine saying hello to, and when I have been led to realizations about myself that aren’t too kind. But this hasn’t been a normal year for me. Or maybe I have only just begun to see it as normal. How else do I see a semester that is half filled with accomplishments and half with rejections? But here’s what I discovered.

  1. I can move on quickly and at times, guiltlessly. This has been both liberating and frightening to deal with.
  2. My best days have been days when I am able to write, read, watch a movie and each of these when I am not at home.
  3. The beginning of holidays, which for me mean invigilation and valuation depress the crap out of me.
  4. Love is no longer an immediate priority.
  5. I don’t like writing for other people. It makes me nervous.
  6. If the people that I am fond of are by my side, I don’t seem to care about who and how many are fucking me over.
  7. I am able to get over a bad class, a worse semester after a lot of whining, writing, and rum.
  8. Writing is therapeutic to the extent that it’s an immediate mood-fixer, no matter how crabby and insecure I am.
  9. Talking to my girls, another mood-fixer.
  10. Happiness is an effort on some days. Effort to do Yoga, to think of something to write, to write, to prepare for classes, to say no. Most other days, it’s the ability to say fuck you and let go.
  11. It’s easier than I thought to own my day. I just need to tweak things a little bit.
  12. Remaining angry with parents is energy-draining. They can look for all the engineer/IAS grooms they want to but they can’t drug me and take me to the mantap. And as long as I am safe in that knowledge, I can afford to be less militant.
  13. Holding a grudge against someone is the most boring thing to do. Smiling and living, on the other hand, the healthier option. And not boring at all.
  14. Defending myself from hate/ gossip is too much work and so mainstream man. Also, if I do it once, I will have to keep doing it. Singing the loudest, happiest song I know at the top my lungs is something I have never done and waiting to do.
  15. I like big lists and I cannot lie. I should do it more often just so I write.

Writing. What else?

It’s one of those evenings. After a heavy and splendid lunch at Rayalseema Ruchulu, I got under the covers and watched season 5 of Gilmore Girls. Three hours later, my stomach wants more food. In the kitchen I find two varieties of Dal, one with garlic and one without. I pour them both on the mountain -rice on my plate and head upstairs to point out more similarities between my parents and Richard – Emily.

Four episodes down, Gilmore Girls plays in the background while I am stalking writers on Facebook. Found a video. Creative Breakthroughs, it was called. I paused GG and played the video. It was Ta- Nehisi Coates explaining why writing is an act of physical courage.

For a moment I wondered if he was going to talk about pleasure more than struggle in writing; inordinately making me feel that I got it all wrong from the beginning. That there really is pleasure and if one doesn’t find it maybe one should stop writing. But he spoke of struggle. He spoke of translating the music in the head to sensible words on paper, and how disappointing it can be to find that what you think of as a writer-dreamer does not write that easily and certainly does not read easily.

When I became a more or less regular blogger, I remember thinking how easy it was to write everyday. I wondered why it had taken me so long to start writing. And then I heard the whispers. People talking, hissing mean little things. In all fairness, there were people saying nice things too. But I found it hard to believe them. It was the whisperers that I had more faith in.

I went back to the earlier episodes I had had with writing, as a hot-blooded teenager. I had found a quote that I used to think best suited writing. You sit in front of a typewriter and open a vein. Over the years it became many things, not just vein. Then came a point in my life when I threw cynicism at that quote and every other quote I found. That the process sucks, but when it’s done, it’s beautiful. Bollocks.

I haven’t stopped writing. Haters gonna hate, potatoes gonna potate isn’t just a kick-ass whatsapp status.

Sitting and Stalking

The first few weeks after my post-graduation were spent sitting in an arm-chair, looking for jobs and streaming How I Met Your Mother. Two tabs for teaching vacancies, two for writing and two other tabs for stalking women’s blogs. I didn’t know this then but I think stalking women’s blogs made me want to have a writing life and made me see how independent the women who wrote were.

Two of my favourite women bloggers were on blogspot then and they had written extensively about their work and living alone. I gobbled up their archives in a day and was thirsty for more. I went looking for them online. I stalked friends of friends on facebook, googled their names and arrived at a set of conclusions. These women were employed, lived alone, liked to read, and wanted to become writers. They were part of writing and reading workshops, were in touch with each other and wrote motherfucking every day.

I was more envious than thrilled. I was only just coming to terms with my own desire to write and these women– some even younger than me, were a lot more accomplished. It was around this time that I got a job at an NGO in Mysore. After a lot of persuading, my parents agreed and I started to pack my life of 22 years into medium-sized suitcases. I packed tea mugs, all of my journals which needn’t be hidden anymore, my books that were waiting to be read after I had become an independent woman, and family albums, just in case I missed them (so many giggles)

When we got to Mysore, I realised that I hadn’t really given much thought to where I would be living my independent woman life. I hadn’t thought of accommodation. I assumed that a PG would come flying by to my rescue and I wouldn’t have to worry. Long story short- I didn’t find any accommodation that my parents approved of so I lived in a government guest house for three days before giving in to their emotional drama and eventually quitting. I cried and kicked all the way back to Bangalore. My theory is that all of my dad’s government car drivers know me better than my parents do. So many of my life’s tragedies have happened in these cars. They would look straight ahead and drive on sombrely, ignoring the hysterical and weepy woman sitting next to them. I wonder what they knew. I wonder if they judged my father.

Months later– sitting in Uttarahalli where I got my second job, I took my first step and started to blog. I had reached a dead-end. I was stalking all these women and becoming nervous and ambitious all at once. These bursts of energy only made me more jealous so I’d binge-watch Gilmore Girls and call it a day. Here I discovered a blogger who lived in Bangalore and went to college by day and wrote madly by night. I followed her writing very closely and that was the exact moment when ambition became inspiration. I wrote about watching Julie & Julia that day and went to bed a happy woman that night.

I continue to stalk women now. I turn to their writing for comfort when my own writing hits all levels of shit and my personal life hits all levels of madness. These women taught me how to be but they didn’t know that I was learning from them. Three years later I find that I have a writing life. It’s not the greatest but I’m sure that if the girl sitting in Uttarahalli knew this, she would be happy for herself.

It’s not easy to write. Especially not when I am sad but it’s the only thing that I can call mine and I trust it to make me feel better.

To Alice Munro, Sandra Cisneros, and other women with elbows

And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow.

~Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

Early 2008 – Jain College.

We were doing Margaret Atwood in an Optional English class one day. We were reading Journey to the interior when a boy said that the Canadian landscape had never been utilised by its authors and that Margaret Atwood should do something with Canada instead of whining all the time. I remember being pissed off by this accusation. I liked Atwood. Why should it fall upon her to do things with the landscape, was my initial response. The teacher sided with me, and when the boy’s retort was the usual, ‘how much of Canadian literature are you even familiar with?’, she told him to bugger off.

We moved on to African Literature after that and the boy and I reconciled so I didn’t go back to reading or fighting. It was a strange time to be a student. Love was around, friendships were disappearing, and parents were sworn enemies. My biggest worry then was figuring out a lie to tell my mother for why I was going to be home late that evening. Time was endless and college really only came to picture a day before the exams. Evenings were spent with a dysfunctional group at the back of a car, watching a movie, eating or planning our next outing.

It’s only as I am writing this that I’m wondering if I should forgive myself for the things I didn’t do when I was 18.

But seven years later, I discovered Alice Munro and I am not thinking of the time I could have read her in. I don’t know what I am thinking when I am reading Munro. I look at the page numbers printed at the top of the pages –One number above the other, wondering if she put them there too, because they seem assured. I am looking at the page numbers only because I have read a line that has made me wonder how many notes the woman must have made in her life. I am convinced that if I pull an investigation and get to the root of it all, I’ll find stack upon stack of dusty notes scribbled in black ink. Or maybe blue, I don’t know.

I cannot read Munro for a long time. Now and then – Now more than then, I must look up from my book and blink, adjust my posture, tie my hair into a bun, and get up to make tea. I must make these readjustments so when I reread that same line; I am more prepared for its candour. Looking at the page numbers came after I had exhausted all of the above.

I am drawn into her stories so easily, moved by her characters so strangely that I feel isolated. That’s a measure of reading I’m growing to be quite comfortable with. If I am pushed into believing that the people around me are as strange as I want the characters in books to be, then I needn’t be afraid of them. I am doing just that. I am taking away all the people I meet and putting them in books that I want to write.

If I could go back to that class again, I would tell the boy there’s a lot of Canada in Munro’s stories. People are always going to Walley to sell things. People are always writing letters to people in Quebec, people are always talking about their children who are in Ontario. The roads are not crowded; they are wide and angled perfectly so there are trees growing at right angles, the sunlight passes through these trees in brilliant bright colors that aren’t just your orange or red. The houses are tall and yellow.

The train journeys are long like in real life, the conversations are short, like I wish they were in real life, and sometimes punctured by longer silences. Munro fills these silences by telling us what these people’s hands looked like or what they were like in a past that is not theirs anymore. Maybe she’s not even telling you what their past was like but you are thinking about it anyway because she’s told you so much about it and moved so quickly from it that you almost want to know what she’s not telling you.

Sandra Cisneros says women in her family sat their sadness on their elbows, always waiting at the window. I remember feeling very happy and sad when I read this line. Happy because who writes like that and sad because I thought of all the women in movies I had grown up watching and how most of them did sit their sadness on an elbow. I am so sure that if my mother’s room had a convenient window like that, she would sit her sadness on an elbow too. Actually she would sit her sadness on an elbow at my window so I could see it feel guilty.

This is an image that hasn’t turned up yet in my reading of Munro so far. The women are doing lots of things at windows but they are never sitting their sadness on their elbows. They are figuring out ways to get rid of strange men trying to talk to them in trains, they are searching for the daughter that left home and never came back, they are counting the number of walnuts that fall off from trees every year, they are cutting  parts of their faces off to deal with guilt, they are falling in and out of love, they are surviving wars and losses, and they are writing and reading letters. But they aren’t sitting their sadness on elbows.

Sometimes they seem just the right amount of sad for a rainy afternoon and you can’t help but sit by a window, your elbow sticking out, your eyes soft with sleep — watching the rain and dreaming sepia dreams.