A Tale of Sarees and Woes

When Meera was 18, the uncle who molested her when she was 14 and then again when she was 15, brought a man one day to her house wondering if her parents were willing to get her married. The man he brought with him was a colleague, an NRI and 32 years old. For the next two weeks, everybody at home only talked about the man and how lucky Meera was. But Meera was in love with somebody else, and even if she wasn’t, she didn’t want to get married to Gangappa, the NRI.

When Meera was 22, her mother found out about her affair. There were tears followed by a 2 day fast, followed by more tears and finally, bread and butter for dinner. When Meera was 23 and 24, she started to have a life outside of her home and her relationship with the boyfriend of 9 years. When this happened, relationships that she had left behind began to turn yellow and sour.

Outside of this home, Meera secretly liked wearing sarees. That was perhaps her only guilty pleasure that she took away from the list of things she had learnt not to like: functions, marriages and families for instance. Because of the hysteria built around young women wearing sarees during functions, Meera simultaneously developed an aversion towards it. Unknowingly, her family contributed a great deal to how stubborn Meera had become. Her dementor sister’s insistence on other people having to be in a good mood, if accidentally she woke up with one, had made Meera somewhat of an anti family person. And also because the dementor sister was a splendid daughter, rebelling against parents became twice as difficult for Meera.

She grew to hate her family and their emotional blackmails. Her dementor sister’s Karma speeches and Journey monologues left her with guilt initially and later when she found refuge in laughter and sarcasm, it became easier to ward off her fake Buddhism. Eventually Meera would come to realise that it wasn’t the depression that made her sad at home. It was home that made her sad. Even so, Meera held her ground until one day the worst saree fight ensued between mother and daughter. Meera succumbed because she didn’t know why but later that evening, after she had returned from dumping the blouse material at the tailor’s, something strange happened.

At first, Meera thought it was color from the clothes she was wearing, it was blue one day and green another day. The spots would hurt her more when she felt guilty about wearing a saree when she didn’t want to. She felt guilty because she didn’t have to do this just because her mother was mad. Her mother was always mad, and she could trust her sister to make her madder. If it wasn’t the saree, it was earrings or wearing sleeveless.

A week after the Saree incident, Meera died. A blue saree had weaved itself around Meera’s body and she had died of suffocation and guilt.

Cuticura and Shadows

Every day after lunch they would huddle up under the big window to chat. The afternoon sun thrown on the floor around the window, mouths smelling of pan and the shadows on the walls imitating their gestures in happy animation. Lunch was a big plate of Rice and Dal. The yellow in the ghee floating like poison in my Dal. I would be sleepy and Aumu’s mom would pull me to her lap by the window to check my hair for lice. Her hands moved briskly on my hair at first and then when the gossip became more interesting, she would slow down, her hands forgotten between layers of my thin hair. I didn’t appreciate the lice removal because it meant time away from my cousins and having to sit in one position for the longest time. As long as it took for another story to be remembered, another running cousin to be caught and dragged to one or more of the empty laps. They were 4 sisters and their mother- my grandmother, mouma. They were an excited bunch. Always full of stories and laugh, always full of drama and cries, always full of lesson and well meaning advice. They were a combination of a Sooraj Barjatya and Priyadarshan movie.

I wouldn’t understand their stories. They talked fast in a Konkani I would hear only during the vacations. It was comforting because it wasn’t Kannada. Kannada was what dad spoke when he was mad at me and when he would teach me math. It was a language that I dreaded hearing and talking in because it reminded me of math and school and discipline. Konkani was gossip and laughter and summer.

Their stories were all larger than life, Aumu’s mother – the story teller would add detail after embellished detail to her already dramatized and well rehearsed version before mouma would cut in and present an alteration, sometimes more exaggerated, sometimes mellowed down if she liked the people in the story. Even before I had the chance to ask who someone was or if I had ever seen them, they would have erupted into a volcano of noise – disagreement, surprise and laugh. Occasionally, there would be tears – stories recollected under disapproving nods and shared sighs of bad and beating husbands, of the son that threw his old and aging parents away, of the daughter in law that wore the same sari to two different functions.

I was fascinated by the people in these stories. They were always bad, like the people in movies. They said the meanest things in the most casual of ways. It is here, this moment that I keep going back to when I think of speech and judgment. In my head, I was asking, what if he didn’t mean it like that? Would he know that the women here in my world had written off his character certificate? Would he ever know that the thing he said became a caricature here, between these walls? And all for not realizing what he was saying. It could be here that I became an over thinker, making decisions about what words would never leave my mouth, wondering if they did without my noticing it.

Money talk was rare and if heard, would always be inspired by mouma – the bra thief. Every time one of my aunts’ left a room, they would look knowingly at the other and hide their suitcases. Somebody would complain about a lost bra last seen in the bathroom. The aunt that I don’t know well asks me if I have seen it. Behind me, I can hear my mother’s voice breaking into a laugh. I will buy you one, she says. They all know their mother took it.

There would be jewelry and house conversations, some uninteresting bank talk, at which point I would drift off and sleep. My head would be warm and now and then I could feel the sun on my hair, slightly burning the exposed scalp, now I would feel it on my cheek, the red in my closed eyes imitating the warmth behind my ears. I could hear the blood, I could see the red.

I would shut my eyes unusually tight if I heard a name that I recognized. In my head, I was begging them to go on, hoping nobody would notice I was awake. When this wouldn’t happen, I would look at the shadows their hands were making and sleep.

Back home, I would wonder what mouma stole that day. It is only later that I learnt how to remember her by the things she stole. Before that I remembered her by the smells she left behind. She smelled of Vibhooti and Cuticura. Two of my favourite things today. I loved looking into her bags. I would always find a packet of Vibhooti there, and a bra that wasn’t hers.

To the woman I don’t know

I wish I knew her as well as I know her in photos. We look very close in all our pictures together, the kind of closeness that is brought together by a hundred unspoken arguments, two pauses and a dot of red silence – the red round on her forehead. These silences are in the thinnest gaps between us that the photos don’t see. It is the tiny strip of white light between our closely hugging bodies that quietly fades away into the distance behind us when I see how her hands lie unforgotten and clasped around me.

We hug a lot. On birthdays and anniversaries and for photos taken on top of hills, clouds all white and happy, a room with fading walls and big windows. We look happy in each of these. But I don’t know if we ever talked. I don’t remember the last time we talked just to talk, no lame necessary exchange of dialogues concerning bills or time or food. We have had arguments, sure, a measured distance that multiplies with every nod she didn’t give me when he was around, every misunderstanding I wanted her to have handled better and every value of tradition that I wanted her to dismiss.

Even so, I cannot think of anybody else who could have done a better job. After years of trying to mold me into the shape that he wanted of me, after all the sleeveless kurtas she returned to the tailor to get them sown into sleeves that don’t expose armpits, the way he wanted, after all the battles I  thought I fought, there is now, between us only a wall that separates our rooms, our lives and our growing distance from each other. On either sides of the wall there are all the things I don’t remember to tell her. Like how sometimes, when I think of her outside the crowd of family and expectations, I see her as a person. Like how she looks lovely in red, blue and yellow. Like how it took me really long to find out what my favourite picture of us is.

The walls in this room are white. There is a plastic cover next to the cot, perched the way I am on her lap. She is holding me tight, like she does in all our photos, clinging to me, knowing that this is the only moment that will unashamedly allow this closeness, this intimacy of unsecret smiles. Her face is young and more oval than it is now. Her big red bindi is not angry as it always is, in my memory. She looks happy and I can tell it’s a happy that is not just for the camera that he is holding. She is smiling broadly, showing most of her teeth.

Twenty four and a half years later there is an occasional silence in the car when we sit next to each other. There’s noise outside and, inside, there are long breaths deeply taken in and thrown out, hiding all signs of accidental sighs.

I wish we were closer, the way she and my sister are, I wish there were more than grunts in our conversations, I wish I knew her better. Now and then when she is not here, I don’t look for her voice the way I think I should when I miss her. I don’t know her smell. I don’t know her at all and I cannot blame her. She’s always been here, and there, on the cot that she sits on everyday. I see her as I make my way up the staircase and into the guilt free space that is my room. I am not too fond of this journey because it makes me guilty to not want to go there, to her room and sit and talk to her, the way my sister does so effortlessly. It’s almost as if my sister were not her child, they are that close.

I wish I could wholeheartedly blame him for all the things that my mother and I can’t have. The shaky, more angry folds in my memory bring me back another woman who isn’t anything like the pretty lady in the yellow nightie from the photo. She is not smiling, she is angry that I went to my cousin’s home a few blocks away. She is angrier because I went with boys, my cousins, brothers, but ‘boys’ in her head. She is angry because I couldn’t be more grown up when I was 14.

I can forgive this. I know that, but I want it to happen sooner. I don’t want to feel her smell on my body after she’s left us. I want to find out what her smell is, now, here when she’s with me.

Amma and I
Amma and I

R – Rabbit hole

Seven years old.

It was crowded but the pleasure was all mine. Nobody noticed me. I was surrounded by a hundred people and they were all doing their own thing. Nobody looked my way. It seemed like the perfect time to pull something mad because this thrill of doing something even when people are around has what filled my childhood with stories of getting caught so many times. I felt a mad rush making its way up my stomach. I could have stopped it, I didn’t. Then I was seized by it so I had to do it. I undid my earrings, the ones it took so long to put on in the morning, and I flung it across the hall. I didn’t regret it because I didn’t know why I did it. I still don’t. I knew how much those earrings meant to mother. She repeatedly said that it was gold. Not just to me but to every god damn passerby who bothered to stop. look, exclaim, ask and invite more people to peer at my ear holes and what covered them. But that’s not why I threw it. I felt a mad, almost sadistic pleasure when I threw it. I haven’t thrown earrings after that but I continue to maintain simple pleasures like doing things forbidden and I take extra effort to do it around people.

Does this have anything to do with my pica disorder?

 

X – Xmas

Up until the 6th standard, I was a convent girl. In both Mangalore and Belgaum, my father made sure we studied in an all girls’ convent. Now I sort of like the idea of studying in a convent but back then I dreaded it. There were so many things that I could not understand about convent life – Mass, Sunday church, Choir and Christmas. But they were all big deals around me. On my way home from Ladyhill (School where I studied in Mangalore), I saw homes lit up with fairy lights and Christmas trees with shiny disco balls. I wanted so much to be a part of this. It seemed fascinating to hang around a tree all day and decorate it and have interesting looking things to eat later in the evening, like cookies and cake. Any occasion that called for baking cakes at home, wins hands down to waking up to loud, insufferable ringing of bells competing with granny’s sick voice trumpeting into Om Jai Jagadish Hare, to which I woke up to, every morning for all the time that I was in Mangalore.

I did have  friends who would bring me generous servings of cake after the holidays but that part of the world always remained a mystery and hence desirable to me. I wondered how it was to speak English at home. Did they joke in English too? What did they have for dinner? For a long time I was convinced that because they spoke English and all, they would eat what I still call the “Tom & Jerry” food. This includes every item of food ever shown on the show. Giant pieces of meat, bread, jelly, custard, pie, steaks, cheese, fruits, sausages and pudding.

This sumptuous scene with food bursting about from all corners of the table remained with me for a long time. Even when I moved to Belgaum and my versions of christian families came to be shattered with every friend I made at St. Joseph’s Convent for girls. I was in Belgaum for 2 Christmases, one of which I decided with great enthusiasm, to celebrate. It was holiday season so cousins and uncles and aunts from all over the country came visiting and one kind uncle helped the cousins and I to pick some sad and orphaned tree and thus began my first Xmas celebration.

It was really a sad tree – short and withering and all. But the cousins and I ran around like mad things trying to decorate it. We couldn’t find any shiny stuff so we decorated it instead with bars of chocolate and Diwali candles. The excitement lasted for all of  an hour and a half. After that we tore the chocolates away from the tree and ran around the house trying to shield it from each other. I was not particularly happy about the tree but I didn’t complain because I did get to hang around it, trying to decorate it so, yay!

This was the stupidest thing I may have done but a good part of it defines some initial Belgaum experiences for me. This and the times spent playing at a garden next door. So every Christmas morning, I think of the tree or maybe I should just call it plant and be done with it. There. A plant that shot greenish-yellow leaves and thinly branches looking worn out because of bars of chocolates being forced upon it. That’s all I think of really – A chocolate named creamy bar that I haven’t found after Belgaum.

Runaway Granny!

This is a story that I have wanted to tell for some time now. I didn’t really know it was a story so I didn’t bother looking there all this while.  It became a story this morning when I eavesdropped on a conversation that my mother and sister were having about my grandmother. My father has always thought that I am like his mother. It’s like this general consensus that I’ve grown up listening to. Now that I think about it, everytime I expressed a stubborn desire to do something that nobody approved of, I was told that I am like her. For the longest time, in fact even until before 2 months, this was offensive to me. This comparison. Everytime someone wanted to make me feel bad and  wanted to make me stop ‘wanting’ something I could not have, either because I was too young or because I was a girl, I was told that I am like my Grandmother.  It was said in a tone to put me back in my place.

I don’t remember having spent much time with her except for our long morning walks together in Belgaum. My grandmother is the quietest person I have met.  Too much has been said about her in the houses that I grew up in. Too much more has been said about her in the houses of my mother’s sisters. Stories of torture and stubbornness and arrogance and my mother’s silent battle against this woman who made life hell for her. This is the story that was told to me by everybody who knew her. I see another story here though. I don’t know much of her past and whether or not she was happy in her marriage, whether or not she liked her children but I do know that she liked being on her own. She wasn’t much of a talker, didn’t like small talk, ate on her own, watched TV on her own and stuff. And these were things that she was constantly being judged for.

Women who like their space are never liked in this family. It’s only now I realise how strong she was/is to stand up to all these fellows. Now I can see why my father and I have issues. He’s trying hard to tame me and I am trying harder to run away. Everybody hated her for how often she wanted to run away everytime there was a fight at home.  And god knows how much my mother wants to silence of the lambs me everytime I mention wanting to live alone. It scares them.  When women in my family think of running away as an option, scares the crap out of them.

I think my granny was unhappy  because she couldn’t be by herself and when I think of how much she could have had if only she was born a generation later; it makes me want to hug my parents so I immediately stop thinking dangerous things like that. I look at what I have now and how much more I can have, if only I stop being a lazy chicken and start work on my escape plan.

I think she was fond of me but she liked my sister better because she was the good one.  See, that’s the crazy thing. I don’t know how these things work.  Anyhow, think how much she would have loved to have a room of her own.  Think how many more people she could have pissed off if she had lived alone, just the way she wanted to. Especially my father. Strange strange family. I have daddy issues and he has mommy issues. But she actually has no issues.  She would have been a happy person if everybody just left her alone! If only she could have run away.

 

To Ashish

I started writing because I wanted to hide from my mother. I needed a space that could be only mine, that nobody wanted because they didn’t know it existed. It gave me some kind of thrill to hide when I was wanted the most. I treasured those moments when I could just hide and watch them look for me. To not be seen when they were frantically looking for you gives you some kind of sadistic authority over yourself and your space. Some similar kind of thrill was transferred onto that moment when I first wrote a full sentence. For those kind souls who do read my blog, you may remember a boy named ‘Ashish’ that I mentioned in a post titled ‘Poof’. For all the times I have fallen in and out of love with god knows how many people, I remember Ashish very well. He was chubby (just the way I like ’em even to this day) and had brown, wavy hair. In all that time that I was in love with him, he must have glanced at my direction once, maybe twice. We never talked to each other.

So him and Rashmi (also a girl I was in love with) were friends and it seemed like he spent all of his life with her. This drove me insane one evening and I wanted terribly to do something about it. I did the only thing that I felt like doing. I wanted to write “I hate you Ashish” hoping it would help me out of feeling lost and small. And where did I write this bit? On a wall in my Mother’s bedroom. I don’t know why I picked her room. I didn’t really pick actually. I remember I had a red pen in my hand and I was in her room and I just walked up to the wall and wrote it. In awfully small font. So small that even if everyone in the world would overlook it, my mother would read it. Because I wrote it and it was THAT small so she had to know what I was hiding (?) from her no?

The woman bawled my name out soon as she read it demanding to know why I had written what I had written. I remember feeling terrified when I had to explain it  to her. So I made up some gibberish and ran away. That may have just been the first of the many ‘Explain yourself’ encounters I was going to have with my mother in future. But I remember feeling devilishly happy because I had managed to piss her off. That episode triggered so much pleasure in me that I decided to keep a journal in some freudian hope that she would read it and be annoyed.

That’s how and why I found writing. It became my most sought out hiding place and promised me guilty pleasures like hiding and watching someone looking for me, hiding and watching someone read what I have written and other such nonsense. Eventually, writing has helped me move closer to the woman I want to become, even though I don’t know who the hell that is.