Tishani Doshi’s session, her dance, her poetry, her thoughts- they changed something in me, added something, weakened something, healed a few more things. Made me think. In conversation with Janice Pariat.
Source: Initiations: Writing Race
It just occurred to me that I hadn’t shared my articles from my time as a volunteer blogger at the Jaipur Literature Festival @ The British Library, London. Two of the best days of my entire stay in the UK.
This is one of my favourites, because it’s about race and identity, two things I keep coming back to. Another one coming soon!
How does one wait for death? What do you look for, what signs do you wait for when you watch for it?
we are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying,
and nothing will stop the death-flood rising within us
How do you greet death when it’s not coming for you, but for one you love? With tears and pleas? With a wobbling smile? With brickbats and burning chillies and ash thrown in that inevitable face?
I ask and ask; it’s at times like this that you realise that adulthood doesn’t mean having the answers to everything. Most adults, it seems, put a wise expression on guesswork and shots in the dark embroidered with a little perceived truth and optimism or pessimism, depending on who you’re talking to.
She gave me her name, her face, a nose-pin. I used to sniff the powder from the soft folds of her neck like a baby-faced crack addict; she would sit on the floor as I inched my way through meals, tell me stories, put me to sleep.
‘She’ is my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.
When death comes for an immortal, hope goes first. Grief is going, draining at a jerky rate. Tears become texturised, gritty with salt because the human body is only 70% water, after all. It runs out fast when death comes for your immortal.
I want her to slip away in peace, to a place beyond pain. I want to cover her wasted body with mine and scream until Death shields his ears and runs for cover. I want her to sit up and order her kidneys to do their duty.
I want my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.
I love her beyond reason. I hate her for dying, for being un-immortal, for forcing me to say goodbye to her without a kiss, without a wave, without a balcony in sight. I hate myself for not coming back sooner, for not having magic under my skin or in my voice, for not making her well. I hate having been born because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have lived through losing her.
I love my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.
What do I watch for, what do I listen for? A whisper of cloth against a wall, a shadow slanting wrong? How will I know when to sit up and hold her hand, when to say goodbye for the last time so that it matters? Adulthood is a shot in the dark; a perpetual game of Bluff and old music. I have no answers. I can only hum the sounds of my Paati’s time (or a section of), and hope I get the timing right.
We are all, all of us, dying. She’s just going first.
Have you ever tried to fit into another skin? It’s not easy. First, you have to choose a new one; there are usually a few on offer, standard issue, one-size-fits-all, like dresses at Forever New. You can alter them up to a point, but there are limits here and here, tailoring can only go so far, and anyway, you’re supposed to shrink, not expand.
Then, you have to squeeze. I remember my first dress. It wasn’t the lovely one-shoulder black gown that hangs in my closet; it was a cute black and white Globus number that I bought when I was thirteen. Knee-length, about three tiers of skirt, I think. I loved it so much. Never mind the squeezing. You kinda have to go with it- everyone does it. Suck in your stomach and shimmy into that clingy bodice, arrange your skirt- pull your bum in, stomach in doesn’t mean bum out– tie back that hair, there’s nothing you can really do about it, and now smiiiiile. Oh, don’t you look cute!
You also sound like a dying horse, but what to do.
And when one skin splits, you try another. Your own is dry and chafed, grey from lack of sunlight, but what does that matter when there are all these shiny and healthy ones lined up, and somewhere you know there’s one that fits you?
There has to be.
You do the same with what’s under your skin. It’s like Photoshop- you realign your smile, it has to be perfect and show just the right amount of teeth. You line up all your emotions and humanness, like cans on a wall, to knock off what they won’t buy. There’s a certain demand, and you have to supply, even if the curves intersect so high that you’ve lost sight of the price.
I have tried skin after skin after skin, pulled my stomach in and pushed my bones out of alignment to fit into them, only to have it all come apart at the seams again and again.
I’m tired. I’m so tired.
“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.
(…in other words, of netting the light particles tingling around us. ~ ‘The Enchanter’, Lila Azam Zanganeh)
You don’t need to have read Nabakov to read Zanganeh on Nabokov. All you need is to listen to the way she talks about him- the passion in her words, the gesticulating hands, the laugh with which she tells us never to trust a writer completely- and to the little she reads out of her book, to fall in love with either this strange man she loves, or with Zanganeh herself. Both.
I remember liking Lolita, but I never got the chance to finish it- meh, college. I picked it up because I’d heard of it- scandalous, disgusting, I’d read, thinking that these epithets had been applied to Wuthering Heights too. I love Wuthering Heights, so I took Lolita to find out if I could love it too.
The first words of a book matter so much- it’s one of the many reasons that Pride and Prejudice remains my favourite book after all these years. (It’s heartening to know that Ms Austen was perhaps the only female writer Nabokov approved of, but I suspect that if he’d dismissed her, I’d be writing this post on something totally different) Beginnings are important. And when Humbert Humbert said Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta, my heart stuttered. With one line, Nabokov had grasped the tail-end of my lungs and squeezed, so that the top expanded and then with a whoosh deflated, sending all the air rocketing up my throat and out of my mouth in a gasp.
This, I thought, is a beginning.
I never talked about Lolita because I never finished it. It seemed futile to talk about a book when I never had the time (or card space) to take it out of the library, or indeed off the shelf ever again. Still, sometimes I silently tapped out the syllables Lo-lee-ta in my mouth, my tongue working light and precise. Lo-Lee-Ta. And then I’d cease, embarrassed at what I’d caught myself doing.
I have a copy of Lila Azam Zanganeh’s The Enchanter (a signed copy, thank you), and I look forward to reading it. I wonder whether I’ll find shades of Lila in her Nabokov or, when I return to it after reading him, traces of Nabokov in Lila. Not in her writing- in her. When I finish Lolita or Speak, Memory, or Ada, and revisit Lila in my head and her book, will I find Nabokov? Does she mean him to be found?
Even in darkness or demise, Nabokov tells us, things quiver with lambent beauty. Light is to be found everywhere~ ‘The Enchanter’, Lila Azam Zanganeh.
(Title shamelessly stolen from Bee Rowlatt’s unnamed friend)
At what point is my story worth writing? As children, we’re told it’s wrong to take pride in our accomplishments, to talk about ourselves as though we’ve achieved something, however small. So how do I come to the thought that, hey, I’ve got a good story, look, it’s about me ?
But that’s not completely accurate. Emma Sky’s story in Iraq is as much the story of Iraqi people (not the Iraqi people, as though all of them experienced horror in the same way) as it is about the US soldiers she worked with, as it is her own. She wrote it. They claim it. In different ways- in the US, it’s in the political section, in the UK, it’s among the biographies, but I might be wrong there. In Iraq- where would it be in Iraq? But they claimed it.
I talk about what inspires me at Jaipur, about what sticks. This next person sticks, but there’s very little that I can say about her, because to write about her journey and her trauma and the scars that her courage left her with is her privilege. I don’t get to tell that story. Read The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, let her tell you, in her own words.
Rosalyn D’Mello peeled off layer after layer of protection, and her book- a different kind of courage, a terrifying vulnerability, and words that mingle into my bloodstream like warm wine- is on my Kindle shelf. A Handbook for My Lover is the sort of book I would justly be terrified of writing, not because of the sex, but because of the intimacy. It would be like putting cameras in my bedroom, bathroom, in my closet and in my underwear; an artful sort of bleeding out, time and again, the knife steady between my fingers. I wasn’t sure if I could ever have enough courage- to start, and if I did, to ever stop.
I asked how- how do you choose when to stop– and she smiled and said, the end sort of looms over the whole book. She laughed, sometimes I’d storm out and then I’d go,’ oh no, my book’. She smiled and told me, I think you’ll like it.
I think I will. She answered my other question too- that deciding that one has a story worth telling, even if no one else thinks so, is a brave thing to do, and that’s the kind of bravery I hope to have one day, when I do have a story worth telling. I think I will.
Is there room for me in Tamil literature?
A part of me thinks often of no. 8, Arundale Beach Road, and the sound of my family speaking Tamil around me, to me. I speak my mother’s language, the Tamil of a non-Tamil; I’m a Tamil outside of my language, who has made a home of the white man’s tongue.
But say sambar in English- a vegetable broth with a tamarind base, thickened with pre-cooked lentils, flavoured with asfoetida, fenugreek, red chillies, and coconut, and topped with fried mustard seeds, curry leaves, and un-ground red chillies
Say Jallikattu- a popular sport involving the taming of the Bos indicus, common in parts of Tamil Nadu during the festive season
Say kanmani- jewel of my eye-
Tell me the story of Ponniyin Selvan all in English, without using a single Tamil word, without the cadences that only a Tamil speaker could have, even in your language, the lilt that we use to make your language ours while your tongue and fingers slip and slide on the surface of mine.
Are there stories that can only be told in their own language?
It doesn’t sound the same, ya!
Is there room for me in Tamil literature if I write about Tamil people in a language to which they do not belong?
where will my stories rest if you say no
Parts of me are shutting down.
I’m not yet strong enough to wear my empty spaces like I do my lipstick.
Last week, I took a blade to my wrist for the first time in two years. I was crying. Not because I couldn’t stop, but because I no longer have anything sharp enough. I threw three pairs of scissors across the room; I retrieved one and sawed until I saw the blood beading on my wrist
I no longer feel disgusted that sometimes, the only thing that makes me feel better is the burning of open wounds. I don’t feel sick or ill, there is nothing slimy and shameful growing under my skin or at the base of my neck. I am as I am, with every dark, dank part of me that no one wants out in the open.
Maybe, at thirteen and sixteen, M could let go of grief through tears. At twenty, it’s not about grief or guilt. It’s about not wanting to inhabit the sack of skin into which this mind has been poured. It’s about this heart being wrapped too tightly in meat to breathe. It’s about blood and bone and sinew that form a prison for dark things that have no place in the sun’s light because no one wants to try and see or smile at them. It’s about these dark things wanting to know how the air tastes, and they will wreck everything to get out.
It’s about not wanting to be this woman, this person typing everything that you’re reading and wondering if you will smile. I slide lipstick over the empty spaces; I feel them growing as more pieces crumble within the structure. Sometimes I dream about everything under my skin simply winking out of existence. Those are the loveliest nights.
I paint a pretty smile on, the sun lights up my eyes, I kiss with a heart that screams my love, and I type and type, when I should have stopped at
h e l p
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.