My Beef, Your Beef

I remember how his eyes became really small and seemed to disappear into their sockets when he was going to hit me. This was in 2009. We were at a hotel in Mussoorie eating the breakfast buffet. I had on my plate, a full English breakfast. When he asked me what the lump of red meat on my plate was, I said ‘Bacon’.

Is that pig?’
‘Yes’
‘OK. But sometimes they serve beef also so be careful’
‘It’s OK, I like beef’
-Silence-
‘You eat beef?’
‘Yes’

He looks at my mother who is sitting the way she always does when she knows something terrible is going to happen: her eyes boring into mine, fierce but saying nothing, pleading to stop. He says I have become like Arundhati Roy. I smirk. Two weeks ago, I had found out that Roy and I share the same birth day and I was still celebrating it.

I am just going to say ‘It’s ok, I like Arundhati Roy’, but my Bombay aunt can sense danger from a mile, so she pinches my arm. Now I am mad.

-I don’t want you in my house, he says. Two children are enough for me, I don’t want you.
-Ok. I’ll leave when we get back to Bangalore.

He has stood up, the table has moved back. The waiters have stopped whispering and are looking at us with devotion. I am wondering if they are taking sides. Whose side would they be on if they knew the whole story? I thought. He is leaving the table but before he does, he leans over all the plates and cutlery and my English breakfast to slap me. Mother has stopped him and has begun to pull him away.

I start weeping, my aunt starts patting my back rather rudely. I don’t know if she is trying to console me or taking revenge. My sister looks at me understandingly but there’s so much pity in her eyes that I must look away.

They say family fights make holidays special. I don’t want to slap the person who said this because later I will discover Lorelai Gilmore who said ‘there’s nothing like a family to screw up a family’.

I have a functional/guilt- induced relationship with my father, the same that most women seem to have with theirs. Have I mentioned that I love Freud? I refer to him in all my classes, especially when my students are being smartasses. While we were discussing a movie that I had just shown them, they said that the ending was kind of clichéd because it
rained and everybody was happy.

I said ‘Sigmund Freud said that if it rains at the end of a movie, then it’s a good movie’. They called my bluff but shut up. Since then I use Uncle Freud in all my classes when I have to invent something famous someone once said.

Every year on the 14th of April, my father sits us down to tell us we are what we are because of Ambedkar. It doesn’t matter that he was going to hit me for admitting to having eaten beef. It doesn’t matter that he insists on inviting Brahmins for lunch on all festivals. Because on the 14th of April, my father becomes the lanky Dalit boy that he was in his youth.

My mother recounts his childhood with a pain that I think he has chosen to remember only very rarely. When he studied engineering in Davanagere, he had no money. His father would send him 10 Rs every month. When he ran out of toothpaste, his friends lent him theirs in exchange for labour. He had to complete their record books. This arrangement ran like ration. For every assignment he wrote, he got a blob of toothpaste.

I know very little about his life back then. This was the first story about him I ever heard and the last I ever asked for. When I look at him in sepia photographs, I see him standing tall and thin, smiling widely. The corners around his eyes are always marked with a happiness that is too easy to believe and too far to imagine. My father looks happy in all the photographs. I don’t know how he does it, standing erect like a shirt on hanger, his hands joined behind his back, his eyes focused on the camera, his mouth breaking into a laugh that I remember as his laugh when we watch Tom and Jerry together.

When I ask them how they got married, my mother picks her answer carefully. She is always preparing her daughters for their lives in her answers to us. She came from a poor family, just like dad. One day when she was lighting choola to heat water in the bathroom, she found a photo ad in the newspaper matrimonial section. She had just picked up this bit of the paper to throw into the fire when she stopped. It was his photo. It said fair brides wanted. My mother was a fair bride. She boldly took the photo to her mother who only saw the words Government job next to a black and white photo of my dad and got her daughter ready. And like that they were married.

They were married in a hurry. My father was afraid of losing his fair bride to his mother’s dowry demands, something that my mother’s family couldn’t afford and something that my father wasn’t interested in.
And because he refused the dowry and became a good Indian man, he was cursed well. His mother-in-law visits us every now and then, more now than then and his mother stopped talking to him because of how nice he was to his in-laws and also because the dowry never came.

My mother says that two days into the marriage, she had begun to get very scared. My father would sit looking at ants early in the morning. He would trap one or two ants in a tumbler, look at them like a wild animal on hunt and smile. He would be fascinated by animals and my mother, by him.
I find their marriage very entertaining. Twenty seven years he’s been my father and he still struggles with Konkani much like he struggles with most other languages.

When we went to Munnar once, he was upset because the Tamil driver didn’t know the route and didn’t know Kannada. It always irritates my dad when people don’t know Kannada, especially Tamil people. My mother has tried to reason with him on this but he doesn’t listen. We think it’s because he adores Vadivel and loves watching Tamil movies so much that he hates to admit that he doesn’t even remember which the last good Kannada movie he watched was.

He thrust the phone into the driver’s hands and told him to call the hotel and tell them that we were on our way. The driver looked confused at which point my father barked, “K.S Anand anta sangu” which is a murder of two languages in an attempt to produce one.

His standard reaction to everything is swearing at people regardless of whether they have made him happy or sad. When we first moved into our new house, everything was messed up. Some walls weren’t painted, some switches weren’t working, and so he called the contractor and agonizingly said ‘Spitting spitting on your face, the saliva in my mouth also got over’, which made me wonder what he was more annoyed with – the unfinished work or the dearth of saliva in his mouth.

That was when he was bitterly angry. Most other times when he is cursing, he is also amused. Like this one time when he was driving and lost, we stopped to ask for directions from a man who gave us a clear map of where not to go. After 5 minutes of listening to that man’s elaborate ‘don’t take right, go straight, don’t take left, go straight’, my father put his head out of the window and said ‘Thoo, may someone pour masala dosa on your face’. Or like this other time when our maid Nagamma put his home slippers into the shoe cabinet for the 10th time that week, he ground his teeth and said ‘may cobras bite cobra-woman’s hands’

It made my mother chuckle with disbelief that he would dole out the most unconventional curses even when he was the happiest. Whenever our cook Shobhamma made what according to him was the best chicken saaru, he would say ‘what curry she’s made may her home fall into ruins’

When we went to Europe for 15 days, I was dreading Amsterdam and true to my horror; he hovered behind my sister and I throughout the shopping spree. He let us enter the first -half sections of all the shops where there were weed chewing gums, the second section was tricky – he had raised his eyebrows at the various novelty t-shirts and mannequins that wore things just to show off parts that weren’t covered.

At the third section where there were all manner of Dildos and Vibrators in fascinating colours and sizes that may have confused him about where to put them, he told us to about-turn and we did because we couldn’t keep the giggles inside any longer.

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