Penance

British Council organised a short fiction workshop with writer Jahnavi Barua last weekend. This isn’t my first attempt at fiction. But I don’t know what it is. Read and tell me. Thank you.

On some days Savitri hides behind the fridge and eats chicken momos. Her son doesn’t know. Ahalya, her daughter in law, knows but acts like she doesn’t. When she sees Savitri afterwards, she turns her head determinedly, refusing to make eye contact. Karthik first brought the momos two weeks ago; Savitri found out from the warm peppery smell in his bag, caught him and admonished him for eating gopi’s manchuri again. The doctor won’t find your heart only, your body will be full of China, she’d said.

  • Ajji, firstly it is not gopi’s manchuri. It is gobi. Gobi means cauliflower. Cauliflower means hookosu. And I’m not eating gobi, I’m eating momos.

Same thing, she said and then slyly asked for a bite. Karthik giggled. He wasn’t going to tell her that it had chicken. His eyes widened and as she took her first bite, he began making rooster noises. Ajji, you are eating chicken, he finally said. He wondered if she was going to collapse but she didn’t move and her face had the kind of smug satisfaction that was only seen when her son yelled at Ahalya for putting too much salt in sambar.

That her 18 year old hippie grandson had just destroyed her 72 year old Brahmin life didn’t seem to worry her even a little bit. After attacking three momos she went to have bath. The geyser was off so Karthik assumed she was having cold water bath as penance in the freezing mad winter. Since then she has been smuggling chicken momos into the house through Karthik every week. She gives him 50 Rs extra to keep his mouth shut. If your appa finds out, then I won’t be able to show my face to him, she’d pleaded.

But soon she started worrying. Often she’d sit huddled in the pooja room in a catatonic state, muttering and chanting prayers Karthik had never heard before. When Karthik told her that he didn’t feel bad about eating chicken because he removed his sacred thread before eating, she wondered if things would have been easier if, like Karthik, she could also be just not Brahmin for a few minutes every day.

She slowly started to take it all out on her son. She banged his coffee on the table every morning and growled at him whenever he asked if her leg was ok.

On Ganesh Chaturti, she told Karthik to bring her 2 plates of momos. When Savitri and Ahalya sat together in the kitchen making paysa for the pooja, Savitri asked her if she’d ever tasted chicken. Ahalya was silent for a long time and when she could no longer bear it, she said that she didn’t care about the gods but her husband would never forgive her if she ever did such a thing. Savitri withdrew into a corner that evening and devoured both plates of momos after which she went straight to bed. No penance that night.

(to be continued) (or not)

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Punugu Bekku

At Meta this year, we inaugurated a series called the ‘Double Action.’ Members of the Department picked a story/essay in a regional language, translated it and read it in the original — the translation being projected on a screen. I couldn’t find things online that I could translate so I wrote a personal essay in Konkani. This is the first time I have come to associate Konkani with a world outside of my home and it was strangely liberating to note that more possibilities with writing seemed to open up when I began to think and write in Konkani. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to consider Konkani as a language I can tell a story in. I can’t say I’m too happy with what I’ve written but then again, that is never the point!

I don’t remember my mother’s smell. Sometimes I think that she never had a smell. And sometimes I think that I have deliberately forgotten her smell. I think I knew her smell better when I was small.

Her smell would hug her clothes and wouldn’t leave. After her clothes were washed and dried, they would fall into a heap on the sofa and I’d leap into them and sleep. In them, I could smell more of her than surf. And hers was always ponds, fair and lovely and a bit of her. I don’t know what that is. Her bindi would sit angrily like a red dot on her forehead. Sometimes the bindi would fall off and her face would look empty and if anyone so much as pointed that out to her, she’d jump around until she wore another one. My sister once told her that if the bindi falls, Ekta Kapoor believes that your husband has died. Amma yelled at her and then laughed.

She’d always feed us when we were small. Once, she put hot hot upma into my mouth and when I started howling in pain, she blew air into my mouth to soothe it. I laughed out loudly and the upma flew onto her face and just sat there.

No matter how sick she is, she always has the energy to show us that she is sick. We know she isn’t well by the way she asks for water. She sleeps like a corpse on the bed and moans. If in case we don’t bring her water on time, she will pretend to get up and say, ‘leave, I’ll only bring it.’ She will not have moved even an inch.

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Amma ani aav

When she sings, she sings with devotion. Just the other day she was singing Aamir Khan’s Delhi Belly song – I hate you like I love you with so much devotion, it sounded like she was praying to him.

When she was small, her grandmother would sing to her. She loved her grandmother. It seems she would only wear white and sit smelling nice and warm all day. My grandmother never wears white and she smells only of Marie biscuits and vibhooti. When I was small, I would sit on her lap and only drink Horlicks after she showed me both her breasts.

Amma calls me Punugu *bekku because I smell nice after having slathered volumes of lotion and deodorant. It seems the Punugu bekku’s shit smells really nice so people make perfumes out of it. I have always dreamt of smelling nice.

I’d sometimes hide in my mother’s cupboard and smell everything I could find there. Her saris smelled differently than her salwar kameez and nighties because she didn’t wear saris often, she never opened that side of the cupboard. It had a nice musty smell to it. And I taught myself to hug her saris and get the most out of it.

Amma’s other grandmother lives in Cochin. During summer, she takes off all her clothes and sits by the door wearing just a skirt and bra. If she still feels sweaty and hot, she takes off the bra also and sits naked with just a towel on. Her name is Narmadamma. When amma mentions her, pa gets a little angry but he also laughs a lot.

All of Amma’s relatives are reddish fair. And all the relatives on pa’s side are reddish dark. Pa doesn’t like this at all. He tried a lot to become fair like amma by using fair and lovely every day but it didn’t work. Once he almost emptied an entire tube and put it on his face. He woke up the next morning with his face burnt. We all call amma and pa – milk and decoction. Pa finds this also amusing.

Growing up is like a curse. I grew distant from amma. I remember how my sister and I’d force our way into amma and pa’s bed when they’d watch TV. Now there’s distance between us — there’s pause and a kind of shyness that I don’t understand when I step into their bedroom. When I was small, the smell of my house was empty – there was too much space and nothing to smell. Now there is too much to smell but no one to smell. Amma’s smell is going away and I’m trying to catch it.

*Bekku means cat in Kannada.

Kottuncheri

When something is lost at home, Mouma says that we can find it by praying to Goddess Kottuncheri and that when we do find it; we must please her by celebrating our joy.

Kottuncheri, like all rituals has a coconut, a vessel to keep it in, some beetle leaves, and five women. The coconut is made to fit inside the vessel, along with three adjoining beetle leaves. This is then put on a stool. The five women, of any age and size assemble around the stool. And when the eldest woman says start, they start running around the stool, like fire in the mountain, run, run, run. They run and while they run, they must chant loudly, ha – ha – ha – ha and clap their hands.

They do this for five rounds and stop. Mouma says that not all ghosts are evil and that some are even friendly and naughty, like children. These children -type ghosts like hiding objects that we are fond of. But they don’t like being laughed at and so, when we laugh loudly, it embarrasses them and they give up and return what they took from us.

I was 9 when I first saw a Kottuncheri. I didn’t mind not being part of it. I just wanted to watch these women clap their hands and say ha-ha-ha. Watching my mother do this was delightful. I’d never seen her body move around so much and she laughed so animatedly that I was sad when they stopped after the fifth round. I’d often lie and say I’ve lost my report card or my most important tie to be able to watch Kottuncheri. Mouma would sincerely conduct Kottuncheri sessions regardless of how well she knew my lies.

Mouma’s small, old body that I’m too afraid to watch even climb down the stairs hops from one side to another when she does Kottuncheri. Her shoulders sway when she jumps and claps on either side of her body.

Not all things that were lost have been found. But that’s not why they do Kottuncheri, I think. They just do it to clap their hands after a long time and laugh ha-ha-ha.

Mouma

Mouma’s neck is wrinkly like her hands. If I put my hands around her neck, and give it a good squeeze, I imagine I can feel the soft wriggly mass of bloody veins inside. When Mouma uses fair and lovely, she rubs her palms over her face and the film never leaves her. Not even in the evening when she returns home from wherever it is she goes to. She likes body massages and facials so all us sisters have painfully sat through these sessions, rubbing her face with whatever cream we could find, sometimes even using toothpaste on her cheeks, having convinced her that it’s really an imported brand.

When I was small, I’d sneak into her room to look for hidden packets of vibhooti – ones she’d hide just for me – away from mom’s reach. These packets came in varied bright colors – orange, green, blue, pink – made of cheap papery material, but all tiny and folded eloquently. Opening these packets was never fussy in the way that opening packets usually is. The thin layer of vibhooti would sit in an even, rectangular film. I wanted to ravage it and also not because it looked strangely perfect. In no less than two seconds, I’d paste my tongue on the vibhooti and hold it there for a minute. After I was sure that enough of it had been taken in, I’d roll my tongue back and wait for the burnt carbony taste to take over.

After devouring the vibhooti, I’d stand in front of the mirror to adore the white traces left behind. And then my stomach would rumble and I’d feel sick from the ash taste in my mouth.

Mouma’s room always smelled different from the rest of the house. While the rest of the house baked in the warm afternoon sun, her room was never hot.

No matter what time in the day it is, in Mangalore, all houses smell of Dalithoy. When they put ghee into the pan to make Dalithoy, the smell is the strongest in the hall and the doorway. From here it escapes to the neighbours’ house just as their Dalithoy smells come to us. Like this, we all live in one giant Dalithoy pan.

Except in mouma’s room though – where it smelled a little of marie biscuits, vibhooti and mostly other temple smells. A TV and a big tape recorder sat in two different corners of the room. She only switched the TV on in the evenings to watch her serials. And the tape recorder was only used to keep other things on top of it. I was surprised to find out much later that it actually worked.

Mouma’s tirganos (underskirts) were, like the packets of vibhooti, varied bright colors – green, red, and orange. They were all faded and that’s the only item of her clothing that I saw everywhere in her room. Even though she may have owned only three, it always seems like she had more. Her sarees, on the other hand were plenty and yet I remember only the yellow one with the red dots that she wore. This is the saree that I don’t remember being folded at all. It was worn, washed and made to fall in the heap full of freshly washed clothes, where it was picked up from and worn again as if it never left her body.

While it was being washed, she wore a blouse that was too small for her and a tirgano, like a proper Malabar woman. She kept her hair open when she was at home. And when she went out, she wore a phanthi (wig) and coiled all of it into a dignified bun. She stole lipsticks and creams from her daughters and hid all of them somewhere in her room. She stole bras from her grand-daughters that no one knows where she hides. Let alone what she does with them.

My Mouma, my heroine.

Curd Rice with Sugar

My sister falls asleep when she eats food. It’s a rare, humiliating sickness. She’s thin as toothpick and my father says that her clothes wear her and that they look fuller on a hanger. Dinner is usually at 8:00 pm and we gather around the dining table. One by one, we finish and when we take leave, we all secretly look at her plate to take note of how much food there is, so that hours later, when we look again, we can decide how much she ate.

Mother mixes sugar in everything she gives her hoping my sister will eat fast. We’ve made many innovative dishes. Upma with sugar; rice sambar with sugar; rice, fried onion, milk and sugar; dosa, milk and sugar; chapatti, milk and sugar; and the ubiquitous curd rice, also with sugar. One night, she made history.

We started dinner at 8 and finished at 8:30. Titanic was playing on Sony Max so some of us hurried to the living room, leaving my sister behind. Titanic began and we sailed on, Jack and Rose fell in love, ran, did it in the car, the ship sank, Jack died, Rose cried. Three and a half hours later, we switched the lights off and went to the dining room to see my sister fallen asleep on the table, her right hand still in the plate, her palm dotted with dried bits of curd rice, a pool of saliva slowly collecting on one side of her cheek.

Ma started beating her chest — strangely without making noise, dad sat down next to her in all seriousness, observing my sister’s calm, sullen face. They were afraid to startle her. He woke her gently almost expecting her to wake up in horror and scream. She stood up suddenly and looked taken aback at my mother’s obscenity and then took one long, pitiful look at the clock. As if setting her mind to prepare for an exam, she sat at the table again with renewed motivation and took a heavy morsel of curd rice, and dumped it into her mouth.

Swallowing it must’ve been hard considering dad who continued to look at her with all the sympathy in the world while ma was still beating her chest, now with both hands and muttering something about therapy – for her or my sister, I don’t know.