Read this short story and felt betrayed. I should’ve read this when I was 19. 23. 27. It’s a good thing I read it now or I would’ve had to add 34 & 35 to this miserable list.
The story is about a woman who is either perpetually in love or waiting to be. She allows herself to be consumed by the men she falls in love with and thinks it neither wise nor necessary to keep some of her to herself. She begins to speak like the men she loves, borrows their speech, colours her world with them and makes their moods hers. In their absence, she refuses to see herself as a person, and feels challenged by the meaningless of feelings and objects around her.
She survives heart break after heart break and is driven to the edge of loneliness until accidental motherhood comes calling. Here, Chekhov stops.
I was moved by this woman who gives herself so foolishly. I was moved when she went from one heartbreak to another because she saw it as moving from love to love, never quite knowing that what she was perhaps looking for was the chance to feel like a person again. It made me see how differently I love now.
Reading this then would’ve meant insurance against believing that the only way to be a person was to be somebody’s something.
But then reading Annie Enraux’s Dairy, 1988was a reassurance of sorts for all the time and energy lost. That the best and worst of us love being loved. What to do? It was a pinching reminder of our ability (read: stubbornness) to remain fixed on the fleetingness of love despite the tickingness of time and the general busyness of life.
She is writing and waiting. She is attending events but also waiting. She is caring for her two children and she’s waiting. Seems to me that we go about performing the non-love activities in life (regardless of how central they are in our lives or we in their lives) as if it’s playing in an autopilot way in the background. And the heroine in us, despite being the fucking heroine is only waiting – not even performing.
Was reminded also of Dorothy Parker and Roland Barthes.
Finally began Wolf Hall. Found myself, quite unwillingly, back on a hospital bed in Payannur where I first started reading it and couldn’t read a word after page 4, having just come out of surgery for an ankle fracture. The rod and screw sitting tightly in my post-surgery foot protested every time there was Cromwell’s bone, rib, eye socket being crushed.
Now, I am not only enjoying the blood bone-crushing but also feeling most wonderfully taken by Mantel.
First I thought you should be from my department, my college, my area at least. Then I thought people will be so jealous of our friendship that they will put kannu, kai, kaalu and all. So the new plan is that you also teach, like I do – but in another college, maybe you teach Physics or Kannada or English or Math. Or maybe you don’t teach- you are in advertising, maybe you are in the middle of a messy divorce. I don’t know. Anyway it’s not important because in the story of our friendship– where we work, who we are, and what we do doesn’t matter.
So let me begin from the beginning.
At first, it will seem like I like you more than you like me. But then later you will tell me that you also felt like you liked me more than I liked you. After this we will giggle and eat shawarma in front of Chin Lung where there is a memorial in the name of someone who died in world war II. We are sitting down next to each other eating shawarma and reeling from perhaps the 2 beers we’ve just had, perhaps the bellyful feeling of finally having found someone to walk bangalore with, we won’t know but it is a good moment and we are looking quietly at the passersby hurrying to get on the bus which is leaning so much to its left that its edges are always threatening to scrape the road.
We are in no hurry to get home because today your parents are not in town and mine have given up on me and are fast asleep. We will walk towards Garuda mall just like that to see if we can get an auto from there. Should we take a bus? One of us will ask the other. We can but it’ll go somewhere and all before it reaches our stop so why chumma, the other will say.
This is why I keep saying we must get a bike. Tomorrow we will get one.
Let me tell you why I am telling you this story. Basically I woke up early today and didn’t want to go back to sleep so I jammed some loud music.
I listened to Karthi songs because I like that fellow’s face. Too much in love it is. Then as I was getting ready to jog, I started listening to Ada from Garam Masala. Then I thought how nicely john and akshay roam around in their bike while this song plays in the background. A song will never play in the background for me in real life but if I have a female friend then it is like a song is always playing in the background.
First of all, we must get a bike so that when one of us brakes hard, the person sitting behind will dash in and get fake angry so that the one riding can say, machi here’s why I braked – can you please check out the babe/dude/giraffe hanging out there? Then we will remove our sun glasses (first we will remove our helmets carefully) and stare for an appropriate amount of time before proceeding with our lives.
Where are we going on our bike, you might ask. Let me tell you, we are going to watch a film- first day- second show at Poornima theatre. It is a Sunday. It is a Vijay Sethupathi film. We will whistle and take off our dupattas and swirl it over our heads while doing colourful dance moves. But obviously when the moment comes, we will both chicken out so we will keep in our bellies all the things we want to do but won’t be able to so we will look at each other with full feels and enjoy quietly while looking at others who are dancing guiltlessly.
But the throb of an unbegun dance will still be singing in our bodies so we will carry it to Cubbon park where we will jump and try to catch the highest branch. Then we will sit under that same tree and count all the couples. When we get bored of doing this we will start telling each other our love stories. Obviously I will ask the first question because I always do – I will ask ‘when was the last time you desired someone’? – don’t take it personally but this question is just the stepping stone to the many other straight to the heart direct questions I will be asking you.
Also we should start somewhere, no? Half the time I will be asking these questions just so you can ask me the same question back and I can tell you the answer I’ve already rehearsed many many times. So then after we finish talking kashta sukha we will go to cottonpet because it’s my favourite part of bangalore and not just because my ex used to live there and his bike would snake us around all the gallis of cotton and akkipet but also because there are old shops and small factories there that I love looking at. All the while, there will also be a strong incense smell because there are so many agarbatti godowns.
Along with that there will also be a cow dung smell but that’s not a problem no? Because if there are cows all over Bangalore, then where will their dung go? Paris? Also what is Bangalore without the combined smells of agarbatti and cow dung mixing in the nostril like Gordon Ramanna’s cooking patre?
Then you will take me to that part of Bangalore where a lover had once broken your heart along with your will to love again. Say it’s Sreeraj Lassi bar where you were in the middle of mango lassi when he told you he didn’t think this was working out anymore and you couldn’t stop drinking the lassi because you thought that if you did, you might start crying so you kept sucking on the straw even if the lassi was over and all you were drinking was air that made your throat dry so you waited for him to leave and ordered another mango lassi and drank it all up in one go.
We will go there together and drink as many mango lassis as it takes for the memory of the other one to exist more quietly and eventually to exit just as quietly. Then we will go to Nandi Hills to rescue all my college trip memories there made with people who aren’t in my life anymore. On our way there, we’ll sing halli meshtre songs.
Sunday evenings, we will make plans to befriend girls like us from Hanumanthnagar. Girls like us means broken hearted girls looking to make themselves open hearted. Especially girls who have terraces even if they don’t have rooms of their own. This is because Bengloor sunsets are best seen from Hanumanthnagar. The homes are all dotted next to each other on slopes that have right angles and other maths expressions. Terraces are not secrets here unlike everywhere else. Here they are shared unwillingly with other terraces where conversations from all over meet and spillover like oggarane smells from neighbouring houses. On the terrace, we will sit in between lines of clothing separating chaddi baadi from their respectable outer-wears. Then we will have masala chai in steel lotas like we used to when we were children stupidly yearning to be adults, better adults (nan thale) who drink tea from big ceramic mugs in earthy colors.
Mondays after work, I will call you and say come on. Then we will go play cricket with boys from Basavanagudi. This is because they cry easily. After we have made enough of them cry we will go eat Bangarpet pani puri till we only become pani.
Every time I listen to old Bengloor stories, I’m taken in by the urge to rewind either Bengloor or myself back to a time in history where we could be fiercely together. I’ve been told that the most intimate way of knowing a city is alone, and the second most intimate way – through friendship, and then finally, through a woman. If you haven’t already noticed it yet, this is a sci-fi story. Because I can’t rewind, I am forwarding. I am writing to ask if you will be my personal female friend. It will be nice.
I told Amita that at the training programme last week, they made us stand in a circle, remove our shoes (and socks) and step into the shoes of those standing next to us. This was to teach us what it’s like to literally stand in someone else’s shoes. Amita slapped her forehead. When the session was over, I told her, I felt bad for the organisers. They had even the most empathetic person in the room now permanently repulsed to the idea of placing oneself in someone else’s shoes, even metaphorically.
Her eyes glowed with terror when I told her how when I had put my feet into the very big shoes of the man next to me, there was a squelching sound and the wet horror of what I assumed was sweat which swallowed all of my five toes. She pulled the slap down to her eyes and then wiped the karma all over her face.
I didn’t tell her about Suman from Chemistry who had straight up refused to stand in my shoes. (‘Uh uh – no, not happening’)
Amita didn’t have to sit through the training because her migraine had arrived that morning and had shown no sign of retreat. Pregnant with relief, she sighed inaudibly but I caught it when her exhaling back became suddenly aware and straightened itself audibly.
We were in the canteen. My green tea was cold and her badam milk was covered with cream. She pinched it with her index and thumb finger and put it in her mouth.
First of all, Etgar Keret’s voice is fun. His ‘eys’ are a delight. Second of all, I want to punch myself for not having read Janet Frame earlier. On a films on writing spree many years ago, I downloaded An Angel at my table but never got around to watching it. Somehow New Zealand seemed distant.
Last year, I found, grabbed, and bought a second hand copy of An Angel at my table at Moe’s books. And that was it. A few days ago, I listened to this New Yorker Fiction Podcast, and felt rescued by Janet Frame.
I am forever grateful to the NYFP series which has given me a range of writers and their worlds to swallow from my Basavanagudi terrace where I water plants & wonder why the color green on my curry leaves is unconvincing.
In this podcast, Keret reads ‘You are now entering the human heart‘ a short story by Janet Frame. It is about a woman watching a museum attendant demonstrating ‘snake handling’ to a class of young children, and their teacher. He invites the reluctant teacher to hold the snake, telling her that the children wouldn’t want to hold the snake if she looked afraid so she must smile and pet the snake. Nothing happens and many things happen.
I read it with Keret’s voice narrating it slowly. In conversation with Deborah Treisman, Keret says that Frame writes to survive. He rarely feels that with other writers. Competence is one thing. “With competence, you can be a con man too. But writing to survive, to finalise something for yourself is something else entirely”
He is open to her writing in a way very few men are to women’s writing.
“I love her short fiction. I think there is something freeing about the way she writes. She doesn’t write for a goal. She just kind of floats or levitates. There is this feeling of zero-gravity I feel when I read her. The reader wants to forget everything and just be. Even though she was less well known than other award winning writers, writing like her wins you peace of mind. When she writes, she wants to figure out what the world and she are all about. She writes to feel less stranger to herself. And that’s something that I feel when I write”
When Treisman asks if that “works” for him, Keret says “Take a leaking roof. If you put a tissue paper and someone asks ‘does it work’? all you can say is ‘it’s all I got”.
When I began reading Keret, I remembered one strange evening in 2014 when I went to Alliance Française to attend the Israeli Film Festival. Some Savarna colleague and her husband were very offended. ‘Don’t you know what’s happening in the world? Why are you not political, blah blah.’
AM had a sharp response. Something about how politically correct Savarnas who are quick to feel offended by what others do, should perhaps also feel offended about living in a country led by a fascist. I noted that when I had said something similar but cruder – said Savarna woman protested, refusing to hear me out. Hearing it from AM, she shut up.
Either way, left to Savarna virtues, I never would have discovered the joy of reading someone like Etgar Keret. VN gave me her copy of The girl on the fridge for my birthday and I haven’t been the same.
Janet Frame had to write in severely threatening circumstances. Here is a bit of trivia:
“Following years of psychiatric hospitalisation, Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy that was cancelled when, just days before the procedure, her début publication of short stories was unexpectedly awarded a national literary prize” (Wikipedia)
Keret’s parents survived the holocaust. A question people continue to ask him is why he chooses to write fiction when he can write about ‘so much more’ – his parents’ survival, the holocaust, and what Israel is doing to the world. I believe these people have never read his work at all.
His fiction is a reminder of what’s possible when we continue to write in zero-gravity through the crushing weight of memories that hold us back. People with opinions will continue to tell others how they should write, live, behave but as long as you keep writing, you don’t even have to raise your middle fingers to them.
For as long as I can remember – I have always been a stalker, first, a writer second. Even when I am not writing, I am stalking. It isn’t worrisome because if stalking happens then can writing be far behind?
I have spent some spectacular nights on my phone jumping from website to blog to YouTube interviews of women writers I’m madly in love with. It’s usually the kind of night that spreads itself neatly on my bed till 4 in the morning – my body gently breaking from all the postures I have been trying, my eyes tired and watery, and my head brimming with inspiration.
So what am I trying to learn from them?
In the beginning it was mostly about learning how to say fuck off. Even now, I’m afraid, I’m still learning the same thing. But please understand that at various points in life, women need different degrees of being able to say fuck-off. The fuck-off that you imply at home for instance is a lot different from the fuck-off you want to scream outside.
Beyond this is another freak show behaviour on my part. I’m obsessed with a strange desire to know everything about these women’s lives – who were their bullies in college? How did they fight back? How old were they when they first fell in love? When was the last time they cried? Do they use napkins or tampons or cups? Do they decide what to wear for work every day or do they just throw something on? How did they begin writing?
In the early 2000’s – the idea of a working woman in my family was radical. Her education, on the other hand was not radical because it was necessary to keep an engineer bride ready for a double-graduate groom. It was maybe more than necessary – it was meritorious.
Today, unmarried women in their late 20’s instinctively learn to show their middle-fingers at people who bug them about marriage and babies.
In the urban space therefore, even if I know many, many working women – it gives me a kind of high when they have work problems. My sister Bubbly’s work involves numerous conference calls when she is at home. Sometimes she sits with her laptop, her eyes scrunching at all manner of squiggly codes. I derive an odd pleasure from watching her work. One such busy morning, she was on a conference call when she was interrupted by a brother trying to wave at her. She shot him one killer look before going back to her call.
I love this. It’s incredible to see women being busy in a world that is just theirs. Kind of like a Bechdel pass. Bechdel fails are almost heartbreaking to watch- where female friendships are compromised because playing out to male fantasies or impressing men becomes more important. This is where Ferrante wins. In her world, there is neither any place for male fantasies nor for women who make everything about men.
I’m wondering also, if things in my past could have been handled better – meaning- without losing calm and foresight. I’m not going to get into the details here because I have already written about it in several other posts. But just what is a decent response to bullies?
My friend says that being unavailable to attacks or the attackers is one way to go about it. You don’t give them space – either in your life or in your head. It’s the only response that merits many degrees of coolness in my opinion. The unavailability isn’t physical. Although that’s a good beginning. It’s mostly emotional, intellectual even. When you don’t talk about them or about yourself in relation to them and their attacks – you outgrow them, you take away power from them. They become small when you focus on something else – your work for instance.
Being unavailable doesn’t mean not caring. It’s this rock- star ability to make attackers cringe by laughing at them. Which means that you care but just not enough to satisfy them – you care, but only enough to laugh at them.
Say a co-worker has an opinion about you and your competence, and has said shitty things about you to people who are directly related to your work – like students maybe, or clients, or people you are in a business partnership with – what do you do then?
Do you call them out for being unprofessional? Do you do major drama? Or do you just ignore it?
Here is a thing I wish I had done – I wish I had laughed at them. I wish my body had filled itself with an untamable Dalit energy and I’d laughed in their faces. Gogu Shyamala’s Saayamma has this energy. So does Devi’s Dopdi.
A short-story I once wrote has a woman named Sumitra leaping wildly, beating her chest and laughing at a man she hates very much. I don’t know where the energy to write Sumitra came from. It was based on an incident narrated to me. I gave her mad things to do because by then, somewhat of a mad woman was living inside me.
I’d like to believe that all Dalit women are naturally equipped with a capacity to laugh menacingly. How? I don’t know but they just do. Someone once said that a good, strong laugh is one that shrinks cocks down. It is true. Nothing shrivels a cock and savarna pride more than the loud and ‘vulgar’ laugh of a Dalit woman.
There is a man at the fair who wears thick wooden hoops on his thin, dark arm. He stands inside and will only come to you if you pay him 10 rupees for 5 hoops. And then he goes and stands back in the corner again. The first two buttons on his loose, white shirt are always undone. I put my arm over the railing and wonder if he is watching. I wonder if he isn’t already tired from watching countless tiny girls making terrible aims at dolls, toy cars and teddy bears. I aim for the doll in the nice blue dress with the sparkly wings. I miss all three times. And then I aim for the packet of Parle G biscuits which I get. I am frowning and pa is now pulling me by the arm to take me over to where ma is standing with my little sister. She has made my sister try all of the three frocks which now lie crumpled and decided on the dirty chair. I look at her tired face and want to hit her. Ma has picked the same three frocks for me. Whatever I get, my little sister gets. That’s how it has always been.
Pa says that he doesn’t want to eat anything and ma says that we can always go back home and she will make something for us. Pa says no to that although I know he wants to eat karimeen sambar again. I wish we don’t. I want to eat Chinese but before I can say anything, Pa has spotted a Dosa point that will give you 33 different dosas and before I know it, I am being pulled into the tiny room with the four tables squeezed next to each other. It smells odd here – old and chipped walls, smelly table top and a tall, steel glass that I push away. Ma orders 4 masalas. I don’t want to eat it but I believe I am old enough to know that in this battle, mothers always win. I tear big pieces of the Dosa and dump it in the space between the table and the wall. I make sure that no one notices, especially the waiters.
On the way back home in our green Omni, I look at my little sister who is fast asleep. Her flabby cheeks are dancing sideways and I want to tear them off. She looks peaceful in her sleep and this annoys me very much. The road looks empty and noiseless. The street lights fall in neat box-like patterns on my lap and I play a game. I must poke in between all the yellow spaces that form and must hurry before the next one comes. Till we get home, I play this game. I miss just the one time.
In bed I cannot sleep so I keep shifting positions until I find one that allows me to look at the moon. The only thing that disturbs me is pa’s loud yawning. He is sitting in the hall watching TV. Every now and then, his mouth makes a loud quadrilateral and yawns terribly. And since then, I cover myself up fiercely whenever I hear a male yawn.
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.