Lessons

Embarrassment is two part spelling and one part memory.

two Rs and two Ss on a good day.

It is the brightest red you leave on your uncle’s pants, the first day of your period

one r and one s on a bad day.

It is sitting with legs wide open in class and realizing later that there’s a gaping wide hole right in between–right where you don’t want it to be. Thankfully you had the sense to wear the only decent underwear you own – no holes or anything.

It is drunk-calling somebody you will never ever call when sober

two Bs and one S on a day you don’t want to remember.

It is arriving right on time for a date in his house and wondering why he looks annoyed

It is trying to hold her hand in public before she shoves it deep inside her pocket, out of your reach

It is asking a stupid question at a conference and telling yourself that there is nothing called a stupid question

It is the time you spend waiting for a reply. For at least one of the seven messages that you have left.

It is too many blue ticks on what’s app

It is not being able to escape the memory of a wrong spelling.

It is falling asleep on someone’s shoulder and having them push you back to the window

It is forgetting how to spell Bengali in a literature class one day, so you quietly scribble Bengally and watch as the horror unfolds.

It is the burden of a slow day — lengths of its wasteland hitting you long after you have gone to sleep and woken up to a longer, slower day.

Pensieve

I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.”

— Albus Dumbledore

It is 6:00 pm. I am sitting with dusty old department files from’95 and listening to the Azhan from a nearby mosque. It is oddly reassuring to listen to the Azhan today, especially after a big burger and a glass of O.M. My ears are sharper and begging for distractions.

I like unearthing old department files. Time and again, I find myself asking for stories about the department. These stories are from a faraway time where, I am assuming– there was more quiet. I imagine myself, following the people in and out of their stories from the 80’s, the 90’s,and the 2000’s. I am like Harry in the Pensieve – floating, desiring, following.

I look into yellowed papers and let my eyes sit on its words. Hand writings. Some familiar, some not- whose pensieves I cannot seek because they are lost. I find it hard to cope with moments like these because there is too much conflict in them. I am nostalgic for a time that wasn’t even mine.

Is there a word for this? To be nostalgic for a time that you have only heard of – from other people? What does it mean if you want to live in other people’s stories more than in your own? I am not looking for an answer. I am looking for a solution.

I came back from a family trip yesterday and like always, I kicked myself for having agreed to go on the trip. There was a baby on the trip – my nephew. My mother becomes a child when she sees him. In la-la land, it should make me happy no? To watch my mother laugh like a child? I think somewhere it did. But behind those giggles was a soft plea to me – to give her a grandchild. Her own, as they say – to play with and what not.

My aunt says I should have a baby before turning 30 because otherwise, they become slow – the babies. My grandmother says I have to get married before she dies otherwise she’ll never forgive me. I don’t want to know how she’s going to manage not forgiving me after her death. I have watched far too many horror movies.

I sat next to these women, holding their hands, giggling in my head and calmly nodding. My sister kept raising her eyebrows and making terrible lesbian jokes. My brother kept dying about wanting internet connection. The father of the baby was stuffing his face with food while the mother was feeding the baby- feeding herself- keeping the baby from falling off the earth. There was so much irony in this entire trip that it stopped becoming an irony after a point.

These are times when I don’t want the pensieve.

Other Beef Things

Bornagain Titus and I met in my final year of M.A. I took a liking to him immediately because he was slightly mad. He is my only best friend today who doesn’t know any of my secrets. In 2015, I come to learn that that’s how one keeps best friends; by not sharing secrets. I also like him because he reminds me of actor Dhanush. His relationship with his mother is the funniest thing ever. On Mother’s day, Titus decided to wish his mother after having annoyed her by missing Church one Sunday morning. When he giggled and wished his mother, she threw a glass of water on him and told him to get lost.

One day, Titus fought with his neighbour because the neighbours’ toilet exhaust fan was right in front of Titus’ bedroom. When they were fighting, the man called Titus a ‘third class’ fellow. Later that evening, when Titus’ mother asked him what he wanted for dinner and Titus said ‘Beef fry’, his mother whacked him on his head and told him not to say it loudly because beef was why people thought they were third class.

This reminded me of my Brahmin friends who intimidated me then and make me giggle now. They would jump four benches away on days that I brought chicken curry and eight when I brought fish. They stopped talking to me once for repeatedly saying ‘Chicken – mutton – fish – Kolla Puchi’. I don’t know what Kolla Puchi means but my father would say that to irritate all the vegetarians in my family. My mother, for instance, who had became a vegetarian only because of an oath she had taken to save my new born Jaundice-ridden brother’s life.

I was 7 when I watched my Mother perform Madastana. That morning, we woke early and I saw that my mother was wearing a saree. She usually wears churidhars so I was mildly surprised. I don’t remember the color of her saree but it may have been cream or even white. Madastana is when lower- caste women roll on the temple floor, on the leftovers of Brahmins’ food. I saw crumpled banyan leaves along with grains of rice and drumsticks that were chewed until all the juice had been squeezed out, stuck to the sides of mother’s saree.

My father stood close to her, bending now and then to make sure that her pallu sat tightly around her chest. I know there must have been another elder person there with us, keeping watch over me, as I ran helter-skelter through the courtyard and came back panting to catch up with my parents. I stopped only once because mother had started to cry. I was afraid because my father looked more upset than I have ever seen him.

Now when I gather what had passed that day between them, my father hated that mother was being stubborn and wanted to do the Madastana. They stopped talking to each other for a while after that and resumed only after my brother regained his health, which is why the Madastana had happened in the first place.

When a friend took me home for the third time, his sister asked me which god we worshipped at home. I didn’t know and it didn’t matter because what she actually wanted to know was my caste. When I told her I was Korama and that I didn’t know much about it, she told me not to mention it to any of the other people at her home. It seemed like she knew a lot more about Korama than I did.

At Peace

We close for Christmas holidays today. The department hasn’t been this quiet in a long time. I am tempted to do another list, but I won’t. WordPress anyway gives me an end-of-year review. Also, I don’t like that I have to rely so much on lists to keep the writing going.

It has been a good year. I won some, I lost some. At certain points, it looked like I lost more than I won but the biggest win this year has been to realize that I can survive all the things I thought I never could. For a long time I believed that I would never be able to deal with people hating me. Turns out I’m quite the bitch in the gofuckyourself department. Not bad at all. Although, I wish I was a nastier bitch and remembered to be nasty every now and then.

I am not too thrilled by the prospect of holidays only because they have come at such a terrific time that I am going to relax the fuck out of them, so much so that I am going to have to perform Krav Maga on myself (Fight Club style) to get back into work shape once college reopens.

Shri Pehelvan Sahaveer Main College

In my 10th std, everybody was convinced I was going to fail because I was the dullest child in Math that my family had ever produced. My English was declared just average because I didn’t know what the word ‘uxorious’ meant when we were watching Monsoon Wedding. My sister was the Harry Potter fan girl when this happened. So it was believed that she was the rock star and I needed help. My mother told me not to worry because they were going to set up a pharmacy in my name if I failed tenth and that I wouldn’t be jobless.

Whenever I think of this, I think of what all my high school over- achieving Brahmin friends would have said if they had seen me duck under the counter covered with Orbits and Kama sutra in Chintu Pharmacy. Or under the counter at Chintu Rajasthani cotton expo that had come mind numbingly close to Chintu’s café. Mouma seemed to be the only one who saw me with a degree in Humanities yet not in any of the Chintu buildings. She was the only woman to have faith in me. She said she would write letters to Puttaparthi Sai Baba and that he would pass me in all my exams.

I went to Shri Pehelvan Sahaveer Main College in Bangalore to do my B.A Journalism. It was quite a unique college. The Journalism course was run by the Psychology department and this was all kinds of hilarious. They kept finding saffronistas to teach us Journalism. My favourite cartoon was a Radio producer turned College lecturer named Radio Kantri. Radio Kantri taught us journalism by talking fondly of his childhood, The Hindu, Narendra Modi, and why A.R Rahman at the Oscars was the best thing to happen to India. Three years doing Journalism there and all I learnt was that The Hindu is a better newspaper than The Times of India.

In 2009, the infamous Mangalore Pub attack happened and I decided to send a pink Chaddi, thanks to The Pink Chaddi Campaign. Later that week, my father told me that he was friends with Pramod Muthalik, the bald head behind Sri Ram Sene, and that he had given him 10,000 Rs the previous year. I sent Muthalik another pink chaddi.

BRA & GSB

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?)