W for Words

I was very impressed with a girl in my 8th std once for knowing dictionary-heavy words. She not only knew how to use these words, but also seemed to know the right moments in which to use them.

“What should we do to make studying more interesting?”asked my History teacher one day. While I was trying to figure out if it was a trick question because how can studying ever be interesting, the girl sitting behind me had an answer that stunned everybody into an acute, shameful silence.

“Break the monotony”, she said. The class held its breath, as if in anticipation of a bigger, stranger word that was just waiting to dive off her lips. My ears suddenly became sharp. I was sure I’d never be able to get over the genius of it all — her unassuming, calm face, the halo of silence after she said monotony, and how shaken I was for hours after that. I’d never heard of the word ‘monotony’ before. I’d perhaps heard someone older use it in an elderly boring way. But I was prompted to sit up and take notice when she said it. I went back home that evening and mugged up the meaning of monotony along with several other words.

Months later, I found a brand new copy of the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary at home. This soon became my toilet book.

The dictionary had a block of pages in the middle that only had pictures.One whole page on stationery items, another one on food, another one on classroom objects, and one more on fruits & vegetables. I’d gloss over the pictures for a long time. This was perhaps my first premature graphic novel reading experience. After I finished with the pictures, I’d read the words beneath it and focus on the US-UK variations, trying to see if the sound of the word matched the picture. Now that I recollect, my most significant learning moment happened on the commode.

This is the dictionary that taught me that aubergines and eggplants are the same, that chips in UK are actually french fries in US, that plaits and braids are the same, that stubble is the shorter, pokier version of the beard, that ‘blob’ is used for toothpaste and paint alike. Also that ‘blob’is probably the only word in the English language that actually does justice to its meaning. Blob is even to this day, my favourite word. When I hear blob, I see a small cloud of cream sitting in a neat drop with an apostrophe in the end.

I don’t know how but I learnt somewhere that tintinnabulation is the longest word in the English language. It is of course, untrue. But I couldn’t help smiling every time I heard the word. I imagined a string of yellow bells tied together with an invisible thread, ringing continuously.

I chanced upon ‘laissez faire’ in the same dictionary and waited impatiently to use the word in a sentence. When I couldn’t find my moment, I decided to randomly use it when I was talking to a friend about letting things go because another friend had stopped talking to us. My friend was puzzled, and looked at me – her face showing no sign of being impressed. I explained the word to her and she shrugged.

Another time, I learnt that the word ‘invincible’meant indestructible and so after waiting for ages, I finally used the word to describe a boy I’d had a long-standing crush on. The monotony girl asked me why I’d chosen that word for him. Clearly, she knew the meaning. I wanted to die. I’d had a longer- standing crush on her and when she wanted to know how in the world the boy was invincible, I had no answer. I’d expected her to ask me for the meaning because, like Thoma Chacko, I’d not only rehearsed my answer but also predicted how terribly impressed she was going to be.

I happened on ‘Deja Vu’ by chance. I used it in a poem that I wrote (keeping the Cambridge Dictionary close to me). It was a poem on Teenage that I’d very wittily decided to title, ‘Teen-ache’ – a term stolen from a section in the Women’s Era magazine. In it, I narrate at length, the various dilemmas of a teenager. I now have no memory of why, how and where I used ‘Deja Vu’. But when my English teacher asked me what it meant, I felt for the first time in my school life, a little accomplished. I sent it to the school magazine. Needless to say, they didn’t publish it and to this day, I’m deeply indebted to them for that.

Salt and Pepper

In some worlds, I’m longing to start living.

In most others, I’m already living without meaning to.

There is nothing sadder than the tragedy of someone living in their past and getting others to live it with them.

It’s always hard to say goodbye — even to the most terrible version of ourselves.

After all, it’s the only reliable thing in the whole world:

The comfort of knowing that we will be just as menacing as our enemy and just as quiet as a sleeping friend.

The Illicit Happiness of Other People

I am lying in bed in the same posture that I have been in for the last two days. After I have finished reading ‘The Illicit Happiness of other People’, I close it and turn away from it. I am not angry or irritated, neither happy nor sad. I am feeling nothing. It’s like turning away from a lover in the dead of the night after making violent love. I play with a thread I have plucked out from the pillow cover. I am thinking many things. I am thinking about Unni. I am thinking if I can ever become like Unni. I am thinking if I know any girls like Unni. I am thinking of Mariamma who is more and more like all the Malabar women I have known and more and more a stranger that I am both afraid and protective of. And then I turn back to the book and start tracing it with my index finger.

A half hour later I am sitting here trying to figure out what it is that I want to say about the book. When I was reading it, I was writing already. I was telling myself – I will write about this sentence like this and this character like that. But mostly I was wondering how Manu Joseph wrote what he wrote.

I don’t usually start reading books soon as I get them. I wait until I feel settled and willing to surrender. When M gives me books, he tells me nothing. He doesn’t prepare me at all. He doesn’t say, ‘This book is going to change your life’, or even ‘I don’t know if you’ll like it’. He just leaves the book on my palm like it’s the most natural thing to do with books, and perhaps it is.

I giggle at the title when I first see it. I have come to know happiness as something that people work for, often very hard. And when I see the title on the cover of the book, I imagine a bespectacled man standing alone and looking at the rest of the world in great irritation. The rest of the world is a bunch of happy, bald men, showing their teeth and laughing.

***

The bespectacled man I imagine is Ousep Chacko, a journalist who is investigating his son, Unni Chacko’s mysterious suicide. Mariamma Chacko, Ousep’s wife is mourning the son’s death and is in a strange crux between her past and present. And like all the Malabar wives I know, she is plotting her husband’s murder. Unni was an artist, the genius kind but not troubled in the way geniuses are. He was a happy artist. That is the problem.

There is an unsettling, unspoken envy that Ousep carries for his talented dead son. Unni’s death is a reminder to Ousep of his own failure – not just as a father but also as a writer. Ousep was once a promising writer, the best that the Malabar Coast had produced in 20 years. But then he failed. As Ousep goes in search of his son’s past, hoping to find answers to his death, he sees for the first time the marvel that his son was. He sees that his son was a better artist than he will ever be.

I found myself siding with Ousep at these points.

And then I found myself siding with Thoma, Unni’s younger brother. Before leaving for school every morning, Thoma stands in front of the door, chanting, “Put fight Thoma. You can do this, Thoma.” This is what Unni taught him to do to feel stronger. Thoma must tell himself that every morning to be able to survive the day. Because last night, like every other night, Ousep got obnoxiously drunk and made a fool of himself in front of the whole apartment block. He called people names, screamed expletives, and returned home to force Thoma out of bed to write his obituary – The Obituary of a Failed Writer.

The lungi’s permanent position in that house is around the fan, where it must behave like a noose. Ousep dictates his obituary every night and Thoma must write it every night. They must put up with this every night and sometimes when it gets too absurd, they laugh. ‘They’ is Mariamma and Thoma. ‘They’ is never Ousep.

Mariamma leans on the bookshelf in the bedroom she has not shared with the man in years. He is still standing on the chair with the noose around his neck. She inspects the chair. It has grown weak over time but a chair never collapses like a table. That is the true nature of a good chair. At best, it becomes lame, it tilts. That won’t be enough to kill Ousep. She can go and snatch the chair right now from under his feet. It would be a perfect murder. She has considered it before but she is not very sure about the strength of the lungi or even the fan. Ousep is heavier than he looks.

Thoma begins to write Ousep’s obituary but sometimes, he has to remind himself of Unni’s death to stop from laughing. He isn’t laughing at Ousep or anything for that matter. He just is. This is perhaps one of the very few times in the book where Thoma laughs. It’s only after Ousep feels tired and hits the bed that Mariamma and Thoma go back to sleep.

***

Every morning, Mariamma wakes Ousep up with a shock of cold water. He wakes up screaming, shivering, and follows Mariamma out of his room — to catch her, hit her, yell at her, we don’t know why because he has never managed to catch her. Maybe even Ousep doesn’t know what he’d do if he caught her. On her way to hurrying out of the house, Mariamma signals for Thoma’s attention and points to her chappals which he then takes to the balcony and throws down for her to wear. After she catches hold of her chappals, she gives him a thumbs-up and goes.

The Chackos are everybody’s neighbours. They are the family that bad things happen to, ones we feel pity for and hope never to become like.

While it was in those bits that I sided with Ousep and Thoma. I sided with Mariamma all along. When the book begins, Mariamma is plotting Ousep’s murder. I wonder if Manu Joseph is also on Mariamma’s side.

OUSEP CHACKO, ACCORDING TO Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story.

Nothing of the sort happens at the end of this story but I couldn’t help wondering if Manu Joseph wanted to kill Ousep just to see if it’d make Mariamma happy.

It is important to pick sides while one is reading this book. These sides aren’t set against anybody, it isn’t even a measure of who’s had the hardest time recovering from Unni’s death. This side is just an open space from which to lean from and watch these characters be weird and strange not only with each other, but also with themselves.

***

When Mariamma talks to the walls, she hitches her saree up to her knees, thighs exposed — and stands like a woman about to plough a field. She tells the walls her story, sometimes pausing to reprimand them, sometimes demanding answers. When she talks to the walls, she is addressing her past. She is addressing the man who molested her, her mother, and Unni’s sisters. These were people who troubled her. She addresses Ousep in third person to his face. But this only happens after he does his walk of shame every morning, after having made a scene the previous night.

THERE ARE THINGS MARIAMMA tells Ousep, looking him in the eye and addressing him in the third person, which have a stinging literary quality to them that reminds him of what they used to say in his village – all wives are writers. His favourite is her description of the way he walks in the morning despite the shame of the previous night. ‘As if he is going to collect a lifetime achievement award from the president.’

It’s easy to fall in love with Mariamma Chacko. It’s easier to hate Ousep. It’s difficult not to be surprised when we are told that Mariamma Chacko is an Economics postgraduate. The saree-hitching, wall-talking, son- loving, husband –hating mourner is an Economics postgraduate and it’s unfair that this information is thrown around without the least bit of warning. As if it’s just something that the writer forgot to add earlier, or worse, waited for the right moment so he could spring it upon us like some FYI Post Script. These are moments when I was convinced I don’t know this family. I don’t know many women who have a postgrad degree in economics. But then it’s not important. Because even the tube of Colgate toothpaste knows that her degree is useless in this house.

The life of Colgate is squeezed out of it until it is a flat strip of thin tortured metal. Then it is violated by toothbrushes and even index fingers for several days. The brushes are not thrown away until almost all the bristles disappear, and after the brushes do die in this autumnal way, the two postgraduates and their son use their fingers to clean their teeth until Mariamma somehow makes new brushes appear. Soaps are used until they go missing in the crevices of the body. Ousep has seen the strange sight of Mariamma staring at an empty oil bottle left standing inverted on a frying pan.

And then I was convinced that I know this family.

Mariamma became more believable for me after Mythili Subramanian enters the book. Mythili Subramanian is Unni and Thoma’s neighbor and close friend. Mariamma is very fond of Mythili and this I found oddly comforting. My own mother hated all my friends equally. There wasn’t a single friend that I brought home whom she trusted or liked. Mariamma’s fondness for Mythili was unclear to me. Does she see in Mythili a daughter she never had? Or does she see in herself a chance to be the kind of mother to this girl her own mother never was?

***

I will always remember Unni Chacko. For days after finishing the book, Unni didn’t let me feel depressed in peace. He obstructed my thoughts in a way he used to obstruct his mother from getting into one of her wall-talking, frenzied moods. I recognized this. Because every time he made his mother laugh, I smiled.

Over cocktails last evening, my cousin A and I talked about love. He said he is like most men he knows, ‘Only capable of being in love with the mother. No one else’

I have heard this before and I understand what it means but the only thing I could think of after A told me this was how different Unni is from the boys that I know. And yet how easily he succumbed to being like all the boys I know. But that hardly matters to me now.

Unni is a memory of a moment I cannot seem to let go of. Unni loved his mother and was capable of loving all other girls just as much. When he hugged Mythili forcefully, I felt a gush of longing. I pictured his strong, 17 year old, hungry arms around Mythili’s slender, unripe body and in that moment, I wanted to be held by Unni. I wanted to be made rash love to by Unni.

***

I find that there are very few words I can use to describe the moment I finished reading the book. I am going to try nevertheless. I felt empty, like I’d been dropped into a big pit that I didn’t want to get out of.

For days after that, I will think about Unni and owe him a kind of happiness I never knew I was capable of. He said, ‘One can never escape happiness.’ I have found it hard to be unhappy after reading this book. I don’t know what this means and I am too afraid to call this moment happiness. But it feels strange, this happiness, almost illicit.

***

Must Must Must

Bubbly and the troop left for Mangalore at 5:00 this morning. Can’t believe she’s getting married already. Can’t believe the pressure that’s going to mount on me now to get married. Must must must think of abandoning the peeps and running off to a little place of my own. I have been dreaming of moving out since I was 16. I’ve been saying that longer than I have been saying I want to move out. FML.

Holiday today and yesterday 🙂 I cannot stop smiling! Yesterday I watched two horror movies back to back on Netflix and read a bit of Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the new Reading Room book. I’m slowly acquiring a taste for reading books at leisure and for watching horror movies obsessively. On Saturday, T and I watched Lights Out. Bastard is always fun to watch horror with. He’s just as jumpy as I am and starts panicking after returning home, which is always fun to make fun of. He called me an hour after we left to say that the lights at his home suddenly went out and that he’s freaking out to bits.

Kabali fever is getting to me. Must must must watch it soon. And with the right peeps in the right place. Only Lavanya or Poornima, that is.

In other news, I’m rediscovering the hots for Shah Rukh Khan. Have been listening only to Shah Rukh songs on YouTube since morning. Boli si surat is playing now and I’m remembering fondly how 19 years ago, mom and dad sneaked out of the house to watch Dil To Pagal Hai. Of course, I caught them red-handed and rolled on the floor and wailed until they decided to take me with them. They were like that then. They were convinced that if we watched Shah Rukh’s movies, we’d fall in love with boys and run away from home. Which is what my cousin M did.

Needless to say, every time DTPH played on Sony Max after that, dad would turn the TV off in a rage and yell at us to go study. Mother would purse her lips together if we ever talked dreamily about hero – heroines. Once she found my secret stash of pictures of all film stars – ones that I had painstakingly cut out from Star Dust and Film Fare. Shah Rukh, Madhuri, Kajol, Rani, Preity, Saif, Akshay, Urmila, Tabu, Sush, and Ash all had to be burnt in the choola because mother refused to speak to me until I got rid of all of them.

I wept and wept like only a girl who has been denied a secret life could weep. My cousins, N and R stood behind me and offered moral support while I threw all the pictures into the fire. I watched morosely even as Urmila’s red lipstick turned into a miserable, ugly grey and then ash.

N and R clicked their tongues every time I fished out a new picture. Didn’t matter who I was throwing , they all had glistening bodies and lovely hair. They each deserved the severest of tongue-clicking. Today, I have unlimited access to pictures from filmistan and whatnot. Still, there is neither the urge nor inspiration. Pah.

An Ode to Drunk Women We Meet in Loos

Finally sat down and wrote that drunken women in loos piece. TLF ran it yesterday. This was saved in multiple draft folders before it sighed so loud, I felt bad for it and myself. You can read the piece here. Feedback is most welcome 🙂

In Arts & Culture Class One Saturday Morning

In Arts & Culture last Saturday, I tried something I haven’t had the courage to try as a teacher all these years. I let students run the class.

We had just finished watching Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. While some of them were taken by surprise, some others were purely disgusted by him. One found his accent revolting, another found his energy irritating. What made the discussion livelier was that people were willing to admit these things and just as willing to listen to me when I admitted to liking the man. There was conversation after that about real and unreal in the world of cinema. We decided to take home our conversation and ponder over it.

In class the next day, D who was made to talk about his interest in films, set a mad story-telling vibe which later, the rest of the class followed. His stories were crazy. I would’ve never guessed how much of a fillum-crazy streak the boy had. From watching films in secret, to egging on friends to bunk class and go with him to watch movies and then getting caught – he’s done it all. We were thrilled to hear him narrate his escapades into the normal world – one we all thought was forbidden to him.

L told us that her destiny was to be a nun apparently. She was sent for training but she kept stuffing her face with food and this made her very unpopular with all the other nuns. When she went home for vacation, she decided never to go back because she liked to eat more than she wanted to become a nun.

Sometimes, I wasn’t able to decide who was more crazy – they or their families.

Like V for instance, whose dad took her to watch The Lion King when she was 4. He waited for the scene where Mufasa picks up Simba in his arms and shows him to the world. And then when the scene came, he took her in his arms and showed her around to all the people in the theatre.

A confessed deep and pure love for Dhanush because he looks just like her boyfriend. L went a step ahead and declared that Dhanush is the realest man because in her life so far, she has never met anybody who looks like Hrithik Roshan or Surya or Vijay but she has seen many a Dhanush. If it weren’t for the fact that I was holding my stomach and howling with laughter, I would’ve hugged her at this point.

S.M, who looked like I’d asked her to give me her kidney when I told her to take off her bag, said that she believes that the Bermuda triangle is a getaway to other worlds and we all agreed. She is also very attached to her bag. Maybe she sleeps with that thing around her neck.

K confessed to crying twice in his life. Once when his school made them all watch Taare Zameen Par and all the boys sniffed through the second-half of the movie and refused to show each other that they were crying. Another time was when the Late Paul Walker was paid tribute to in that recent Fast and Furious movie. L cracked up at this. She burst out laughing, her face turning shades of red, eyes all watery, saying over and over again, ‘you cried for fast and furious’

A.N said that S.S has ruined movies for her because he’s so much into film making, he’s always telling her to pay attention to the camera angle and such. S.S said he hates it when people aren’t paying attention to the movie and keep shifting around or checking their phones. Like me, even S.S believed for a long time that the hero and the heroine of any movie are married to each other and it freaked him out when he saw the same hero romance other heroines in other films.

They all told us something that none of us knew about them. From stories that surprised us to stories that made us see them differently to stories that had us giggling and howling. Enjoying films appeared to be the common most thing in all our lives. I’m beginning to think that we aren’t all that different from each other. And I am taking an odd comfort in knowing this. I’m happy 🙂

Freud

There are many ways to begin this story.

I will pick the one that happened 5 minutes ago.

Five minutes ago, I was in my kitchen, wondering why I never turn the kitchen lights off when I know I’m going to come back soon. When I come home, I drink water – hot, usually. But I drink water. I put on the kettle but hate waiting around for it to become hot. So I go into my room to change, all the while, hoping dad doesn’t come out of his room to yell at me for leaving the lights on in the kitchen. Then I race my way down to the kitchen , take my hot water and then race back up again to secure my place in front of the desktop.

When I turn the kitchen lights off, it’s a signal to the house. The day has ended. Nobody’s coming down.

In K today, I read Kundera and drew long, delightful comparisons between what I found in his book and my god damned life. It helped that I was consumed by 2 glasses of white rum. It made things more fascinating than it might have been.

Kundera says:

In the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment.

A single metaphor can give birth to love.

The only relationships that can make both partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other.

***

I spoke to 6 students today about their writing, each time feeling a lot like I was actually talking to myself. L wrote a fascinating piece about learning and unlearning Telugu. A is worried because she can only write in second person these days. U has a shy smile of an 8 year old who has just learnt to wash his own clothes. It was oddly gratifying to talk to him. S and I talked about fiction and I promised to give her my borrowed copy of The Illicit Happiness of Other People. N came running to me the minute she’d finished reading the Illicit Happiness because she couldn’t deal with life. I’m familiar with the feeling. We had a conversation about the book. She is writing about it. D wrote a funny piece about a PT master from school who convinced her that Srilanka was right next to Jalahalli.

Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the stories that surround me. So many stories, I am not really sure where to begin and how to begin anymore. Their stories particularly, leave me thinking about my own for a long time.

Back home, Bubbly was sitting by her laptop wondering why her codes don’t match. In class today, I screened The Rocket for II year students. I  had a great time watching it again. It brought back some fond memories. From the last time it was screened and the time before that. When it rained in the movie, I thought about the good old Freud and what he said.

I wish Biffes would hurry. I need me some new movies.

It is 11:52 pm now. I am wondering if I’ll be able to pull off my 5:00 am writing tomorrow.

Pah.