Day 5: Tempest and Tranquillity

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“Sometimes I feel like my life is someone else’s dream”~ ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’, Kate Tempest.

Last time, I told you about Nabokov, the man who squeezed the bottom of my lungs and forced a gasp out of my throat. This time, let me tell you about hypnotism.

It’s not of the slow you are getting sleeeeepy pendulum kind. I wasn’t sleepy. I was awake, alive, and frozen.

When Kate Tempest said Imagine, I did; when she said Jemma and Ester and Pete and Zoe, I saw them come closer and closer and melt into my limbs. I’ve no doubt that if she’d said we stand here and grow roots, I’d have stood up, grown roots, and become an amaltash tree.

Kate, do you realise that you gave us no choice?

I sat there, breathing only when I heard her breathe into the mike. That was the only chance I had to catch my breath, as she piloted us, brakeless, weightless, into a journey from which we all came back more than a little ragged. A little broken in the best possible way.

I come away from this year’s Jaipur Lit Fest with books, few photos, and other things more important- Lila Zanganeh’s happiness, Kate Tempest’s chaotic brilliance, Sholeh Wolpé’s sweetness, Rosalyn D’Mello’s courage, among others. I leave with more goals, a desire to build and grow, to engage in passion more. I leave with the idea of working at writing, of getting better by working harder and every day. A lesson at once simple and confusing.

I leave with a knowledge of living with people I don’t know, in an unfamiliar family scene. I came expecting a hotel, and when I found a family home, I was shaken and a little afraid. But somewhere in between my first makki ki roti and preparing the child for an upcoming test, I found comfort, and a space that I could, for five wonderful days, call my own.

I leave hoping to come back some day. Hopefully, soon.

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On Caste and Questions

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Sitting in the office, having finished a couple of techie articles, waiting for either work or lunch, whichever comes first. There’s a niggle in the dip under my shoulder blade- a memory of a Bio class tells me it’s the scapula. Flexing it, I decide to create my own work.

I just shared an article about caste on Facebook. It picks at a thread that I’ve often worried, but been a little afraid to pull at. You see, in India, you never know when you could lose your head over what you say. Makes it hard to take a stand.

I lived in Pune for a while as a kid. When I was about seven, we had a bai (maidservant) called Kusum.  Kusum aunty, I called her. She was the sweetest bai we’ve ever had, as far as I can remember. When my father had surgery and mom stayed nights at the hospital, she stayed with us for hours at a time, sometimes at night, leaving only once my brother and I had slept. Until my aunt came down from Chennai, she made sure we had food in the morning, and after school, packed lunch for us, and made sure we ate our dinner properly. It was only a few days, but it was everything.

Kusum aunty had a daughter, or maybe a niece. I don’t remember now, but her name was Guddi. It means ‘doll’. She smiled a lot. We used to play together whenever Kusum aunty brought her home, to wait while she worked. I liked Guddi. We used to throw cushions at each other from across the living room, and one time I threw a bolster, and Kusum aunty gave us the tongue-lashing of the year.

Guddi had long hair that was parted, braided, then doubled up and tied with red ribbons. I’ve forgotten her face, but I remember thinking she was pretty. I loved her hair because it was long and easily braided, while mine was wild and curly and mom nearly wept at the prospect of having to tame it every morning. I remember liking Guddi very much. I don’t remember when was the last time I saw her, and I suppose she’s married now, with a couple of children. She was older than me, so she must be.

I remember that we never ate together, at the table. Not once. Kusum aunty used to give me my food when I sat on a chair at the table, and she and Guddi would sit cross-legged on the floor with their plates in their hands. No one objected- not Guddi, not me. I would eat quickly, as though if I ate and left the table, the ants under my skin would disappear too.

We had another maid, Hansi aunty, in Delhi. She was always sad- my mother told me her story, in bits and pieces, over the course of a month.

Her husband was old, had taken to drinking, had lost his job, had taken to beating. Her son demanded a bike as a precondition for getting a job. Her daughter was in school and refused to help around the house. After 30 years of marriage, with their savings almost gone, she was forced to work as a domestic help. She worked hard in two houses- ours and her own. “Mujhse isse zyada nai hota.” She said to mom. (“I am not capable of (here, strong enough for) more than this.”)

She usually came to work after drinking a cup of chai, and eating- nothing, she shrugged and said. She refused mom’s shocked offers (often with accompanying scolds) of breakfast. But mom refused point-blank to let her leave without eating something. One time, mom wasn’t home when I got back from college. Aunty was.  Mom had left a ton of dosa batter in the fridge.

“Make some for Hansi aunty also, okay. Don’t let her go without leaving. She’ll leave at 5- 5.30, so make food before that.”

Well, okay. I can make dosas. Generally, pretty good ones. And there was chutney and something else I can’t remember- maybe sambar, or aloo ka jhol.

So I made dosas. I set the table for two, heated the sambar/jhol, and began to make dosas. Like, okay, normal type of cooking.

Except that Hansi aunty brought her plate and a stool into the kitchen and ate there. She ate with a shaky smile and watery eyes, telling me (and later mom) that she felt like her own mother was making food for her again, and how nice it felt. And that was nice. I felt good, maybe like I was a little less of a heedless brat.

But I ate at the table and she ate on a stool in the kitchen, and she washed both our plates before leaving.

She was the help, so she washed the plates- all in the job description. But there’s nothing to prevent her from eating at the table.

But of course there is. Just as Kusum aunty and Guddi would never have dreamt of joining my seven year old self at the table. Caste and class are interwoven at many levels in India, and the former is old, older than religion, really. Caste acted on my ancestors and their ancestors and theirs too, telling them that this person can be touched and this touch is polluting and this person should not be seen and if you do, go have a bath and become pure again. Caste told Kusum aunty and Guddi’s ancestors that you sit down and look up all the time, be it a seventy year old man or a seven year old child, because you were born here and they were born higher. They did good things in their past life, and you might have killed someone even if you don’t remember, so take the punishment for a crime that you don’t know that of course you’ve committed.

I’ve written emotionally. It was emotional; it was a response to being brought face to face with the fact that I may not believe in caste, I may speak against it in my drawing room and online, but again and again, when I eat at the table and they eat on the floor or on a stool in the kitchen, I am practising the teachings of caste and the system that grinds down innumerable people, and has done so for centuries. I am part and parcel of a system that operates in all arenas of life- social, economic, political, and cultural- to dehumanise human beings, and erase them and their contributions altogether.

The filmmaker Anand Patwardhan visited our school and screened his documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade, once.I have very little memory of the film itself, though I remember being rather disturbed. What I do remember is that Anand Patwardhan asked how many Dalit students there were in the student body. We all looked around, and towards the end of a ten-second wait, I was mentally begging someone, anyone, to put up their hand and scrape off at least a little of the shame I could suddenly feel crusting my spine.

(No such luck)

(The crust is still there)

How many Dalit students did I know in college? None. Did I go out of my way to find any Dalit students and befriend them? No. How many friends do I have whose caste can be said to be significantly ‘lower’ than mine? None.

“I don’t believe in caste”, for me, is a passive thing. The whole truth is that I ignore caste, and the way it plays out in everyone’s life. I say everyone, because no one lives outside the caste system yet. You are either an active participant or a passive one- an enabler. I’ve been the latter for far too long, I think.

I read once that racism and sexism cannot be examined separately. In India, we have a third axis: that of caste. The relationship of any Hindu person to power in India is first a function of their sex, then of their caste, and then of their race (because yes, racism exists in India- it always has), and then of any newer variables such as class and income.

Caste complicates things. A Dalit woman and a Brahmin woman have very different relationships to power. A Dalit woman and a Brahmin man, two Dalits- a man and a woman, a Brahmin trans man and a Dalit man, a Brahmin trans woman and a Dalit man, two trans women- one Dalit and one Brahmin- all different.

Confusing, isn’t it? I’ve used Dalits and Brahmins because it’s probably the biggest polarisation in the caste system, and also perhaps the biggest ongoing re-negotiation of power and relationship in Indian society.

Like I said, caste is confusing. It’s also controversial; it’s not only a social conversation, but also a political one. I also said, though, that I’ve been passive for far too long. So these are conversations that need to take place, at all levels, in order to re-negotiate relationships, and to make the distribution of power as equitable as possible.

One day, that crust might vanish. A seven-year old child might not feel ants crawling under her skin as her friend eats on the floor, while her own legs don’t quite touch the ground  as she sits at a table. One day there might be a Dalit child at Rishi Valley. There could be a girl sitting with the maid at the table, eating dosa as the maid cries.

In India, you never know when you could lose your head over what you say. But you take a stand anyway.

 

 

 

 

Eyes From Trains

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So there’s a boy. And yeah, there are some feelings. But this post isn’t about the boy, or about the feelings.

This is about the eyes of the people I see beyond the boy’s shoulder. The eyes I see, when I look up from his texts with a small smile, a small smile that slides lifeless to the ground when I see their lifeless eyes.

The eyes, starved of dreams, of the children crossing train tracks to pick up wet plastic, or of men waiting, by the tracks passing by a hamlet, for the train to pass by. The eyes of young women of my age, who should be twittering nervously to friends about nonsense, about things that don’t matter but really do, because you’re a girl and he’s a boy and there are little glances and touches and smiles and things and didyouseethatmovie ohmygodRanveer and ‘haan ma, I’m coming’ accha suno did you know-? But their eyes run lonely, begging for a sliver of a hope that they can’t hope for, hoping for something that they know will never come, for something that they don’t know how to hope for.

The eyes of mothers who rail all day and cry at night, hamara kya hoga, kya hoga, bacchon ka kya hoga, kya karen kahan jayenge aage kya hoga? The eyes of mothers who love their children just as much as ma loves me, but money means more than kisses when you don’t have enough to eat.

I see them, waiting by the tracks as my train flashes by, their eyes catching mine for a second that isn’t really a second but a lifetime or twenty. I see them, bundles in hand, leaning on pickaxes or shovels, squatting on their haunches in a boredom that reeks of hopelessness. I see them waiting for something, waiting, waitingwaitingwaiting for whoknowswhat. Who cares now, because when your days run blood and your nights buried without sleep, who cares about dreams and hope and fairy things you can’t touch, except little girls with dying smiles and parted lips, rich little girls with distant sympathy and troubled eyes staring at you from trains?


Hindi terms:

haan ma- yes ma

accha suno- okay, listen

hamara kya hoga, kya hoga, bacchon ka kya hoga– what will become of us, what will happen, what will become of the children

kya karen/ kahan jayenge/ aage kya hoga?- what do we do/ where will we go/ what will happen in the future?


A Journey In Despair- Part I, by ValyrianWizard

A Journey In Despair- Part II, by ValyrianWizard

Lunchtime Rhapsody

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I smell it before I enter the room. Heck, I smell it before I leave my room. Truth is, I left my room because I smelt it.

We’re rice eaters most of the time, our sort of traditional South Indian Tamil Brahmin (this is where a select few of my friends scream ‘pseudo!!’), and I’ve been reared on rice. God, that makes me sound like livestock, but whatever.

My sight fixes on the fluffy white rice in the cooker, while my olfactory senses are preoccupied with the tangy smell of imli (tamarind) rising from a bowl whose lid is askew. So very deliberate, mom. You know I’m not going to come late with that smell soaking the air in the house. The vathakozhambu (think of it as a thick, spicy gravy with vegetables that we mix with rice) that my mother makes is, quite simply, the stuff of dreams. 

Another smell catches my attention and I lift the cover of the adjacent bowl. Baingan ka bhartha (smoked eggplant). If I wasn’t before, I must be drooling now. There are jackfruit chips too! I saw them! And the curd- thick and creamy and cold, like the true curd only North Indians can understand (even if I normally think of them as cuisine-challenged weirdos, I will always choose their curd over our Southern, very runny version). And my mother, who has lived in North India for fourteen years (and counting), understands both our food and their curd: a deadly combination which will probably result in my becoming unsexily fat, and disturbingly uncaring of the fact.

Hastily, I pile my plate with food, only shouting for my big, hungry brother to come for lunch after I’ve taken all I want. 

I wipe my chin, fully aware of the small grin on mama’s face. Oh god, I really am drooling. 

And with good reason too.