My new blue dress bleeds colour.
It bleeds without provocation. It has no hesitation, discretion, intent nor prejudice. It is a dress with a lot on its mind, and with nothing to lose.
I have never—deliberately, at least—owned anything that has the potential to cause so much trouble. I love my dress. But it is dangerous. I’m terrified of what it, in a machine, would do to my clothes and my flatmate’s. So I wear it a lot, my patience in ready competition with the dye, waiting for the bleed to get better.
It is a dress, but I treat it like a disease that I’d rather treat like an inconvenience. Not something as face-splittingly painful as a rotten tooth. But maybe more like a corn in the crook of an unimportant toe, or a mysterious, highly specific ache in my shoulder.
Whenever I wear my dress, I sit exclusively on dark coloured sofas and granite slabs, stand despite the rare fortune of seats in the gleaming metro, and when I forget, I lean against a wall. Once, I caught myself sitting in a paper white chair. I didn’t know how to bring it up with my host. So I left, a little giddy with a secret that she would only uncover when (if) she washed the chairs and lined them up in the sun. My chair would be that frustrating white sock sacrificed to liquid blue.
My dress fits me well. It fits my chest with a snug, grown-woman fullness. It hugs my waist and flares at exactly where my self-consciousness begins. It’s a heavy dress, batik in technique, contemporary in motif, anarkali in inspiration. In temperament, it is an indulgent craftsperson summoning an extravagance of fabric to put to employ in making me look beautiful.
The first time I’d worn the dress and taken it off, I had noticed that my white panties (my favourite with blue lace trimming) had been dusted blue by contact. The blue folds against the white cotton had looked like the stretchmarks along my sides. When I bathed that evening, blue rivulets had run from my feet to the drain.
Yesterday, when I drew my hand out of my pocket, I found blue grit under my fingernails.
My dress is the blue of night. Not nights of stolen, sodium-vapour-lit, shawl-swaddled walks through Hanumanthnagar. But of a night on my back on Surathkal beach, watching the star-stippled sky and the lighthouse cutting slow ribbons through it.
I match my dress with serious-seeming earrings and feminine-enough sandals. When I walk, my dress swishes as is appropriate for my age (not like a synthetic sun-dress on holiday). It is reluctant to play with passing drafts, and it rustles like I have important business to do.
In my dress, I’m daubing my city in a blue carbon-copy-paper patina. I am a vandal, leaving imperceptible blue graffiti in the shape of my seat.
I am guilty of laundry discourtesy. And theft of a slice of sky.
Chinni cannot even begin to list the things she hates about herself.
Today, latest on that list, is a single thick strand of hair that has sprouted overnight from the mole on her chin. She hates the mole on her chin. It is three sizes too large to be beautiful, and many a friend has failed to resist all bounds of propriety, reaching out to touch it and see if it was real. She agrees with each of these friends – it feels like the back of a kambli-caterpillar, like cheap fabric, and yes, it has the texture of her mother’s round sticker bottu.
Chinni’s mother frequently discourages her from looking at the mirror. She says it’s important for a growing girl to not be interested in vanities, but must be invested in becoming a virtuous, obedient woman fit for marriage. As she scrubs turmeric into the small hairs on the sides of Chinni’s cheeks, Amma insists that Chinni is not merely pretty, she has lakshana: beauty fortified with the qualities of grace, piety, divinity, and of course, values.
But every morning when Chinni brushes her teeth, she finds herself horrified again, tearing up again at how helpless, how alone she is in her hideousness. The faded bottu from yesterday squat in the middle of her shapeless brows. Her round cheeks and soft jaw. Her plaits, and the small unruly curls nagging at her ears. Her plain brown eyes shaded by clumpy long lashes. A fuzzy shadow under her tuber nose. Her thin lips covered in toothpaste froth.
She does not care to be beautiful on the inside.
It’s not like she wants to look like Sushmita Sen or Aishwarya Rai. Frankly, she is unfazed by the women she sees in the glossy newspaper supplements or on TV. It’s not a lifestyle of beauty she yearns for. She simply wants to fulfil a basic aesthetic appeal. Some redeeming quality. Even one thing. Anything. A quality that has been bestowed upon her without her having to make an effort. But she never finds it. She quickly bathes and gets ready for school, giving up again today, but knowing fully well that battles like these can only be fought in increments.
Later in the afternoon when she comes home from school, her Doddamma pulls her aside and asks if she’s stopped wearing a petticoat. Chinni is confused. No? Doddamma summons Amma, and together they hail an auto to Gandhi Bazaar. They alight at Vittal Dresses. Chinni is confused again. She is never used to being singularly taken out to go clothes shopping. Plus, it isn’t anytime close to her birthday or Deepavali or Gowri-Ganesha. Doddamma clucks her tongue. Come inside Shilpa, she says, using Chinni’s real name to convey the strain on her patience. Discreetly they are ferried deep into the ladies’ section where every hue of saree blouse greets them.
The women behind the counter size up Chinni, and their hands unbox and box a variety of cotton bras. They all look the same. Chaste white cotton cups with white elastic bands. They look like they have already been washed with a blush of liquid blue. The model on the cover has astonishingly conical breasts. Amma and Doddamma pay for three bras at the counter. They hail an auto back home. Chinni holds the brown paper packet in her hands, and feels the plastic cover slip-slide under it.
In the bedroom, she takes off her uniform and her petticoat. She unfurls the neatly folded bra on the bed and takes in its shape. She grins, remembering how her Doddamma pronounces the word. Brey-see-yerrs. Chinni mouths the other word, bra. It sounds sexy. Forbidden. Belonging to a world that was not allowed to her so far – and it dawns on her that there is so much about this world that she does not understand, that is frightening. Thrilling. Bra. It sounds awkward. It sounds as sheepish as she feels when she passes a shut shop with “Avon Bra and Panty”painted loudly on its shutters. Bra. The pop of “buh” with a rush of “rah”. She keeps repeating it to herself brabrabrabrabrabrabrabrabrabrabra until it loses all meaning. She finds herself giggling, giddy. She snakes her hands into the straps and adjusts the cups at her chest. It feels strange. The lack of restriction around her belly feels alien. The absence of a petticoat. The exposure of her navel. The awareness of the two distinct parts of her femininity. The bra, and the panty.
She looks at the mirror and cocks her head. She’s wearing a pale green panty. And a new white bra. Her breasts are not pointy like the model’s on the box. Instead, the cups look wrinkled, askew, deflated. Like badly spread butter on bread. She hoists her breasts up and simulates the eventual fullness of her bra. How she will bloom.
She starts laughing. How silly it is to carry breasts in cloth bags.
You know you have left only when you come home again.
You are greeted by the smell of garlic in hot oil. Of the smell of your mother’s Sunday henna ritual. The smell of your grandmother’s evening flowers gently nagging your grandfather’s morning aftershave. You are warmed, welcomed, then shocked by the smell of your home, a smell that you had never known or noticed but now feel with a pang in your alien chest, a sensation that tingles your nose, with either the threat of tears or just the feeling of a new stimulus — for your nose is now the nose of a bird that has left the nest it was hatched in.
You are conscious of the space you take. Your fingers take a pulse longer to place the switch to the tube light. Your bed does not remember your shape. Your plate is at the back of the shelf. Your toothbrush is now used to clean your father’s shoes. You find sentiment in coincidence: how, just like you, your mother brushes the crown of her head with the back of her hand when she kneads dough for chapatis, or how, just like you, your grandfather tsks and disciplines a wayward newspaper. The couch feels plush and delicious, and you can swear your grandmother’s hands have grown softer when they weave your hair.
Everything is predictable, yet nothing is the same.
You find new things: new rubber bands, new dupattas, new blankets on newly drawn washing lines. New brands of shampoo, new pamphlets for new insurances against new diseases. The kin of new house-help in their new but your old clothes, new phone numbers on new post-it notes. New whites in hair, new wrinkles in hands, new nicks on chin.
The things you have taken away have left discoloured spaces and these spaces now wear a patina of dust, a cataract of finely ground finality, a veneer as thin as new skin that aches all the way to your core. This was you. This is now you. The story has moved on in a way that feels like a gasp of air in a swell of oil. The suitcase you wheeled out held your earthly possessions, and also the sum of your molecules that make you you, wheeling that suitcase. You moved away your things, and you; at once Fed-Exed everything to your future, and everything to the past, and now what is here is you, holding your toothbrush that you brought from what you call home, mouthing the ghost of a feeling you call home.
Home is where you feel homesick.
A version of this appeared in Mint Lounge on July 19th, 2014. Do click through for more deets on planning your own trip there!
I was 27 years, one month, and three days old when I touched snow for the first time.
It had been a long wait. I had taken an overnight bus from Bangalore to Hyderabad, a day-and-a-half-long train to Kolkata, an overnight train to New Jalpaiguri, and a-day-and-a-half long bumpy drive along a mud-and-rock-road into North Sikkim. 2660km, four days, and six halves of the antiemetic tablet Avomine later, I had come far enough to see my dreams of snow crystallize into the here and now. I was standing along the snow-choked Gurudongmar Road in Sikkim, worried that my tears would freeze to ice.
The friends that I was traveling with and I had one thing in common: none of us had seen snow before. We – two Malayalees, two Kodavas, one Chennaiite, and one Bangalorean (me) – had all dutifully gone on Kullu-Manali/Darjeeling holidays with families over the years. We had been content to look at far off snow-capped peaks without ever touching or seeing snow up close. And so, our mission on this trip was to travel to Sikkim’s famed Lake Gurudongmar – the country’s second highest fresh water lake, at an altitude of 17,100ft. in the Kanchendzonga range of the Himalayas, frozen over this early in the year – to claim an ultimate glittering prize that had eluded us all these years.
About 105km from Gangtok, we reached the Lachen checkpost in pitch-dark, at 10pm. The guards granted us permission to stay the night at Lachen, but warned us that the road further up was snowed in. They said it was highly unlikely that our jeep could take us far on the snow-jammed roads, and that proceeding by foot would be… (meaningful pause). We fell silent. We wouldn’t be seeing what we had come so far to see. Sensing our disappointment, the guards told us that we could go as far as our jeep would go the next morning, but (firmly) suggested that we not take undue risks.
At 6:30AM, the AccuWeather app on my smartphone read 2°C. I paced the balcony of our homestay with a cup of yak tea, taking in more than what was in my cup. Just meters away, row upon unruly row of sugar-dusted pines defied gravity to stand at attention on mountain slopes. A road traced its way around the mountain, wound like buntings on a Christmas Tree.
I swallowed another half of Avomine.
Fortified with two t-shirts, a sweater, a sweatshirt, and a couple of scarves, I joined the others as we bundled ourselves into the jeep. Each of us sighed, lost in private fantasies of what the near-missed frozen lake would’ve looked like. We would’ve stayed in our worlds, if it weren’t for the view.
Gurudongmar Road ribboned together mountain after snow-heaped mountain. Scraggy arms of oak reached out to the sky, proffering white soot. Pinecones drooped, heavy with icicles. Blades of grass wore diamonds for dew. In the gorge far below, the slate-emerald river Teesta winked in the soft sunlight. The snow on the road ahead went from muddy to sullied by occasional tyre-tread to plush white duvet. At about 40km from the lake, our jeep began to fishtail. The driver killed the ignition and looked out the window, thoroughly bored – the universal sign for “This is it. We aren’t going any further.”
Snow, I soon found, does not crunch.
“Crunchy” is an adjective apt for wafers and chips. But here was a softer, more wholesome sound. This was something buoyant and light, like Soufflé, or sponge cake. Every descriptor I could think of was in relation to food, because my first impulse on seeing real snow was exactly the impulse I’d had as a six year old seeing it in National Geographic photographs: I wanted to eat it. The early March sun’s warmth touched my ears and told me this spectacle of white was a daily miracle; a transient one that was melting soon, and so I must grab this newness with both hands – hands that I promptly de-gloved and plunged into this inviting blanket of cake-icing. Every substitute I had made do with in my playing years, soap suds, cotton, foam, crystal salt, bubbles of thermocol, all failed as points of reference to process this new, bewildering texture. I didn’t know where the snow-flake ended, or where the flurry began. I threw a handful up in the air and watched it disintegrate and fall and catch at my hair and eyelashes.
What was I, as Kamala Das says in her poem, An Introduction, “South Indian, very brown”, unworldly in the ways of snow, going to do with it? Every snow-centric activity I could think of I had gleaned from popular culture: snowball fights, sledding, skiing, making a snowman with a carrot nose, fashioning a snow angel, Olympic figure-skating. Was there an Indian way of playing with snow? A snowball lagori, a snow cricket? An actual ice-spice?
How familiar is the rest of India with snow? What is Indian snow like? Is it as mercurial as its sibling, the Indian rain? What does snow mean to those of us so far away from the Himalayas? I thought of the word for snow in my mother tongue, Kannada, which borrows the Sanskrit word, hima. Hima, which is the root of the word, himalaya, had now become the derivative of it. It was how my grandmother likes to say, “Hima is what you would find on the Himalayas”.
Reaching snow anywhere in the subcontinent takes considerable effort. Snow dictates its appointments; who it meets, when, where, and how. Snow is found almost only in the six Indo-Himalayan states – Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, the northernmost wedge of West Bengal, and Arunachal Pradesh. And only March favours snow-tourism. Too early, and half the roads and viewpoints are shut. Too late, and the snow has thinned or melted. Perhaps this inaccessibility, this whimsical nature of snow is why it is perceived with some exoticism far down the country. Informing friends and family of trips to these northern states usually invites an, “Oh! So did you see snow?”
Down South, snow has a “foreign” status that’s usually reserved for travelling abroad. It is so far removed from our understanding, that until online shopping, looking for snow-gear was an expedition in itself. (Bangalore, for instance, had only Commercial Street’s Eastern, and eventually, Western Stores to turn to.) For couples of a generation, snow was a special aspect of honeymoons. And now, snow calls forth associations with grueling mountaineering, and increasingly, Bullet rides. Having seen snow was once an accomplishment, much like having travelled by air before the 90s. Now, having seen snow is a sign of being well-travelled, of being possessed by modern-day wanderlust.
Back at the jeep, dusting snow off my elbows and my knees, I struggled with how to articulate, translate, and internalize this quick-melting poem in my hands. A cold breeze tugged at a few snow-heavy branches overhead and stirred a pitter-patter. This was it: my first, private snowfall. And I found myself humming Vairamuthu’s words, scored by AR Rahman for the 1992 film, Roja.
Pudhu Vellai Mazhai.
New white rain.
So this appeared in Mint Lounge on May 31st, 2014. It was so much fun writing this. And I think I’ve received my first few zealot commentary, mails, and criticism for it. But more on that some other time.
It was my third day in class I at a new school. My first friend, Farah Naaz, opened her rectangular stainless-steel tiffin box, and then its smaller rectangular compartment. She clapped her hands in glee, poked at the immiscible mass in there, licked her finger, and squealed, “Goat brain!”
I was disappointed: The brain did not look anything like the brains I had seen in cartoons. It even managed to look harmless, somewhat like my mother’s tomato pachadi. It seemed incredible that something like this innocuous mass could faze, even terrify, my cockroach-bashing, mali-thrashing grandmother.
Vegetarianism was handed down to me like knock knees and unmanageable hair. It is so ingrained in our family that my ajji, like several other sweet, middle-class Kannadiga grandmothers, cannot get herself to say “non-vegetarian”, and refers to the whole class of meat as “NV”. She does not have patience with fish, poultry, red or white meat: It is all a tut-tut brand of “NV”, pronounced envy.
I grew up in a milieu that encouraged this NVing. Meat-eaters were talked about in hushed voices. Houses were leased on the basis of whether tenant families cooked meat or not. The nearest butcher shop was about 2km away, far from the main road. The neighbour’s roosters clucked about, gratefully untouched. “Non-veg jokes” exchanged between slightly older children were literally so.
Maybe it was the zeitgeist, unconscious censorship, or just coincidence, but looking back, even the imagery of food in the domestic comics I read seemed sterile. Unless the story demanded it, food illustrations in Tinkle comics (and by extension, Amar Chitra Katha) were mostly vegetarian. Suppandi visited the market and returned with legumes and gourds peeking from his basket. His employer ate from thalis where rice was a tiny white mountain and rotis were ellipses accompanied by circles of non-committal sabzis (vegetables). Raja Hooja preferred fruits. Raghu hated his spinach. And Uncle Anu’s club got by with chocolate, pav buns, and browning cut apples.
In a New York Times article, author Lara Vapnyar writes of dreaming about exotic things to eat in Cold War Russia. And like her, in a pre-Internet age, my trysts with meat were those of vicarious adventure and fantasy. Meat was a “foreign” idea that I discovered in glossy interior decoration magazines left behind by NRI (non-resident Indian) aunts. Here, I saw Thanksgiving turkeys with socks and skin like honey-glazed tote bags. I devoured Enid Blyton stories where “bacon” and “ham” mingled with my own breakfast of toast. I was fascinated with how Archies’ Jughead with his half-mast eyes polished off hot dogs topped with zigzagging mustard. I wondered: Was a hot dog really a dog? A Dachshund in a bun?
I would carefully examine what the characters in Asterix ate on each adventure: shiny double-humped camel meat in Persia, delicate quail on a galley to Egypt, cold cuts looted from pirates and loaded up on a magic carpet to India, chains of sausages in Belgium. My mind boggled at Obelix’s staple boar glistening on a spit. I was tickled by Tom, Disney’s AristoCats, Top Cat, and other cat-toons that dug up fish bones as the universal sign of destitution.
This curiosity with meat was not unique to me. My mother, aunt and I were keen followers of Khana Khazana, a TV cookery show that demonstrated an impressive range of NV recipes. I remember my mother would evade moral conundrum by watching the ingredient section on mute.
I’m certain, also, that we weren’t the only NV-curious family. A look at the menu in the glamorous A/C deluxe side of a darshini (stand-up eateries in Bangalore) reveals much about the middle-class vegetarian’s complex feelings for meat, and the preoccupation with wanting to recreate meat in the vegetarian world: Gobi 65, Paneer Tikka, Veg Biryani. In Mumbai, I found the Jain Omelette that substitutes eggs with besan (gram flour) and proves that besan is best in laddoos and face packs.
The classic vegetarian’s first brush with meat is usually “by accident”; by way of a “chicken something” construed as gobi manchurian. Some see this as serendipity. Some reach for mouthwash. I tasted my first bit of meat as a consenting adult, without much ado, and found chicken to be wildly overrated, but mutton wonderfully distinct. I decided I don’t quite like the texture of meat. I’m happily a staple vegetarian, but I’m curious about all the things people eat. And so, today, my bucket list includes unambitious items like pepperoni (why did I bother), eggs benedict, escargot, caviar (never again), bratwurst, Goan sausages, pho, soap, and chalk.
I like quoting a friend who says that once you’re an adult, congenital vegetarianism is a choice. When I eat out, I find that vegetarianism is harder. At most popular upscale restaurants in Bangalore, only about 30-35% of the items on the menu are vegetarian. And that includes the French fries offered as starters. This is not a case for vegetarianism, or against the secondary treatment of veggies by evil restaurateurs (I usually forgive them when I get to dessert). But it’s surprise: that living in a world which loves its non-vegetarians, I was so insulated from meat.
Maybe my vegetarianism runs deeper than my genes. I recall how in class VII, at the library, I came to question Chicken Soup For the Soul: I mean, what’s wrong with cream of mushroom?
In the dining room, the waiter brings champagne to the girl sitting down — she has had enough of her heels.
There is the girl who looks cordially bored.
There is the girl who is laughing at everything with even a hint of warmth in it, relieved that there is no room for small talk in this company. There is the girl full of one-liners. There is the girl who learnt to masturbate before she learnt to apply lipstick and is today conscious of drinking from her wineglass from the same place where the lipstick has left a stain. There is the girl who has spent her whole life in her textbooks, that irony passes her by, but the world is on her side of guilelessness. There is the girl whose fringe hides an eye, which tempts another girl to push her fringe back and say, “There, the world must look clearer now.” There is the girl who excuses herself to take a work call. There is the girl who protests, “This late!?” There is the girl who has discovered that her round face can be cheated to look aquiline (a word that she learnt from Cosmopolitan when she was 12 and she loved the sound air made when it passed through her lips when she mouthed it to herself), and all it takes is a little rouge applied artfully under her non-existent cheekbones. There is the girl in a heated argument with another girl about the exact meaning of the word “aquiline”. There is the girl who thinks interns these days are ungrateful. There is the girl looking for a tissue. There is the girl looking for a lawyer. There is the girl looking for the other girl looking to step out for a smoke.
There is the girl whose cab is already here.
There is the girl who uses the word “bitch” as a term of endearment. There is the girl who keeps saying, “You haven’t changed one bit.” There is the girl who shows her left ring finger and says, “No man’s land.” There is the girl who does not know how to fish the wine-soaked fruits from the bottom of her sangria, who feels the eyes of a boy on her, and the eyes of the girl who likes the boy, so she fetches a fork and yet gets her fingers stained, so she licks them with relish, but gets away with it because she is thin, so thin, her waist looking so comfortable in its place. There is the girl wearing a mismatched blouse. There is the girl whose sentence keeps getting cut off at, “This one time…” There is the girl who can’t get enough of The Game of Thrones. There is the girl who makes bold jokes about religion. There is the girl terrified of the next Prime Minister. There is the girl whose shoulders look rounder in everybody’s memory, a detail everybody forgets, but replaces with the roses she had pinned in her hair. There is the girl who is teaching another girl to whistle with two fingers in her mouth. There is the girl who covers her mouth while laughing. There is the girl who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone the other girl knows.
There is the girl who wants to take a photograph. There is the girl who is explaining the algorithm on Jesse Eisenberg’s window in The Social Network. There is the girl who wears her saree pallu like it doesn’t matter, who opens her eyes and her mouth wide, furiously hugging the girl who has used three pins to keep her pallu in place. There is the girl that points out to the others that another girl has a navel piercing that shows through her gossamer saree. There is the girl that asks, “Did that hurt?”
There are men too. The men stand at the fringes of intimidation, watching this bouquet of women, each with a distinct maddening smell at the nooks of their necks, right under the question marks of their ears, smells that their thumbs are hungry for, but know of the fire they must first cross.
And so they stand, and they watch the fireworks.
Amelie is amused by Nino’s growing bald spot. She rubs this spot every night when she is done creaming her feet and stuffing them into socks, and likens it to peach fuzz. She is older, the skin around her mouth has softened a little. She finds herself appraising her shoes more and more, wondering, is this a little cloddish? There is a young colleague who is trying to get her to appreciate bold colours of lipstick, but Amelie is mostly captivated by how expertly the young colleague applies a steady line of red on her lower lip in just one stroke, and how when she purses her lips together, a perfectly symmetrical other half blooms on the upper lip like a red Rorschach butterfly.
The manufacturer of her favourite eau de cologne has shut shop. She has discovered a weakness for clove cigarettes. In the world outside, a few kings and princes have been overthrown by artful coups that she is lesser inclined to follow. These days, Nino mostly goes down on his knees at birthday and bachelorette parties where photobooths have become a big hit. Amelie has fashioned patches for his trouser knees, and is starting to insist that Nino doesn’t ruin his good pairs of pants. She thinks he works in the DVD business, but he’s actually growing into a millionaire. Neither of them knows this yet.
Across from where they live, an American chain of donuts has appeared. When it is summer, Amelie indulges herself a donut with a syrupy core of orange peel. She reads the English on the paper bag in careful pauses, and realizes she has never been to America. This may not have bothered her before, but now, she’s not so sure.
Ever since her father passed, Amelie has wondered off and on about Mathematics. She read somewhere that long ago in China, the government forced couples to have just one child, so after parents passed, they had effectively halved the population. She thinks, they may now be at 1/64th their strength, and yet, they remain the world’s most populous country. She tries hard to wrap her head around how large the world is, and how random and scattered her own acts of goodwill must seem. She hopes it will pass, because she hasn’t even admitted it to Nino yet, but she’s not sure she believes in solitary moments of gold and god-light anymore.
She dusts cocoa powder on a batch of freshly baked muffins. The cat tinkles the bead curtains and slinks away in apology, but nothing tears Amelie away from watching the cloud of cocoa settle. She is awed by how each and every individual speck of this chocolate has come from somewhere in Ghana, that she, here, remembers her mother recommending. She feels a familiar flutter. She has understood with great clarity her undertaking for humanity. These are not acts of randomness. These are choices that she has known in her every pore; knowledge that has only now made it to her brain. She knows she is not cruel to be unmoved by drunkards crumpled by dawn. But it definitely rules out being Florence Nightingale. She stirs her tea and analyses all the things that break her heart – a car with a teddy bear being towed by a helpline truck, a dead pigeon by the road, dirty snow, a blind man trying to key a hole – and finds that these are things that nobody in this world can exercise the illusion of control over. She cannot remedy these, but she can, using that same Brownian system of the universe, cause kindness and wonder, and maybe, just maybe, gold.
But she pauses. Does the dust of cocoa matter on a hot muffin?
She reminds Nino to brush his teeth. She peels the duvet and slides in. It takes her a while to fluff the pillow into comfortable submission. She sits in bed worrying the band-aid on her finger. Nino is scrapping together what seems to be a hairy –
“What do you think this is?”
She leans over and tilts her head and runs through all the words that Nino has taught her these past few years. They were appalling words, words far more potent than “shit”, “nincompoop”, “retard”, or “Idiot”. She locates the right one and smiles remembering how they had giggled conspiratorially and had said the word over and over and over till it lost all elasticity and became a strange lump of sound, not knowing which the bigger offence was – the word itself or the undignified stripping of its definition. It had been a moment when the universe’s hollowness had been exposed, but they had taken to it like the brave new world under a tablecloth.
Amelie looks at Nino, and smiles.
They can’t stop laughing.
Inspired by a conversation with the extremely talented Philip John.
A version of this appeared in Mint Lounge on March 22nd, 2014.
I don’t think even I have understood my mother as well as the proprietor of Payal Fancy Store has.
Everyone – or at least, every Bangalorean woman, her friends and relatives – has encountered the Fancy Store owner. He’s usually wheat-skinned and looks perpetually in his late twenties, with a wisp of a barely-there moustache, a twinkling stud in his ear, and fingernails colored deep orange from continued applications of henna. His negotiating tactics are a study in the fine art of persuasion, delivered in a lilting Kannada whose unfamiliar intonations betray his Marwari roots.
His strangely accented Kannada cannot conceal his pride in the fact that his Fancy Store is a well-stocked trove of unexpected surprises and delights for us Bangalorean women. The Fancy Store – with names like Lakshmi, Kajal, Karishma, or Modern, names nobody actually pays attention to or remembers – has been designed to cater to every middle-class female need and vanity, and to pander to every Bangalorean woman’s aspirations of being an active yet sensible participant in the vicissitudes of fashion.
In these Stores, it’s not uncommon to be welcomed by cello-taped cutouts of A-list actresses from glossy magazines. Here, sticker bindis inspired by every K-soap vamp rub shoulders with a wide range of Love-in-Tokyos: rubberbands with bauble ends named after the 1966 Bollywood hit that Asha Parekh used to tie her hair into a ponytail.
Technicolor nail laquers from chic fashion journals find imitations in the Fancy Store’s humble glass display. Gun metal jewels inspired by famous designers or reigning sensibilities sit pinned to folded pieces of plastic, accompanied by paper bits announcing single or low double-digit price points. Elastic, safety pins, buttons, electronic razors, sanitary napkins, bangles, cones of mehendi – everything that belongs in a woman’s closet or dressing table – is available here.
Saw an absurdly expensive innovation (say, that rainbow-coloured static duster) on teleshopping? Well, guess where you’d find its replica for one-tenth the price?
Chronologically, the Fancy Store pre-dates the supermarket, and is distinctly different from the latter in one very important aspect. The supermarket is where the Bangalorean woman plays her role as wife or mother, but at the Fancy Store, she is woman first. To not let anything get in the way of her shopping sprees here, the Fancy Store also stocks plastic cricket bats, coloured balls of all sizes, action figures, and carrom boards, all to appease young boys who might get in the way of their mothers’ and sisters’ indulgences.
The Fancy Store is among the few places in today’s Bangalore (old vegetable markets and some stalls at the many BDA complexes are others) where the martial art of bargaining for goods still thrives. It’s where a good middle-class woman earns her fleeting indiscretion with a hearty haggle. She flexes her harmless-flirtation muscles in a verbal thrust-and-parry with the Fancy Store management: “Bhaiyya, it’s my birthday, how about a discount? I come here all the time, please give na?” In my entirely non-Hindi-speaking youth, I’d practice in these shops what little Hindi vocabulary I’d gleaned from Bollywood movies.
And what savvy middle-class woman doesn’t want one-upmanship over mercilessly priced big brands whose costs soar ever higher as malls pack Bangalore’s skylines? No wonder the Fancy Store stocks bootlegged versions of products from Jergens, Bath & Body Works, and MAC, among others. The supply chain remains murky because one never finds multiples of the same product, so if you decided to come back to buy another bottle of that body wash you took home today, you may never ever find it anywhere again. Fancy Stores also often resort to some adroit rechristening; Beebok, Adibas and Upma are all brands I’ve found in these shops I frequent.
And yet, the Fancy Store invokes much affection, and not entirely because of nostalgia. Walking into such a place gives one a humbler, sharper perspective of money, a more basic articulation of our desires, and a more open, honest admission that we think that self-worth indeed lies in the things we buy.
Almost like an antithesis – or on second thoughts, precursor – to Bangalore’s changing ideas of what is sacrosanct, is the middle class woman’s second best friend: the Gandhige Angadi. Gandhige is a corruption of the word, Granthike, which roughly translates to herbs and holy articles, and Angadi means shop.
If Morocco’s charm and essence are in its souks teeming with exotic meats and spices, Bangalore’s romance, mystery, and very smell, is in its Gandhige Angadis in its old neighborhoods of Basavanagudi, Chamarajpet, Malleswaram, Jayanagar and their ilk. Here, piles of turmeric, vermilion, and multicoloured rangoli are heaped onto plates, amidst garlands of plastic flowers, strings of tinsel, and cotton wicks. Small plastic frames and effigies of all kinds of deities (usually season dependent) await prayers. The air of the Angadi smells of something ethereal, with distinct accents of ash, camphor, arecanut, cinnamon, and sandal.
The biggest draw of the Angadis is the affirmation they lend to tradition – that everything of worth in this world must be made from scratch. According to tradition, even Puliyogare (tamarind rice, a traditional Bangalore-staple) must be made right from raw tamarind, and to use pre-mixed powders and concentrates would be blasphemy. And so, it is that every item required for every puja has been accounted for in the vast inventory of the Gandhige Angadi. On my trips to nameless shops in Basavanagudi and Hanumanthanagar, I’ve often marveled at the range of intricately made toranas, closely etched copra, and adorable miniatures of kitchen utensils.
The Gandhige Angadi has gone a step ahead of the Fancy Store in understanding its market, and has segmented its clientele sharply: the women who spend a limited (but nonzero) amount of time in the puja room, and the very pious women who attempt to maximize time with their favored deities, even as they balance the demands of bawling kids, work schedules, and household chores.
For the former’s benefit, the Gandhige Angadis offer stickers of predrawn kolams, rolled cotton wicks, readymade sacred threads, pre-mixed orange rice – facilities that let the busy woman get her prayer-fix with minimum effort. These readymade conveniences are exactly what the latter kind of clientele turns its nose upon with a scorn usually reserved for any coffee that wasn’t born of a coffee filter. This latter group of women is also likely to consult the almanac or the Panchanga, naturally exclusively available at the Angadi, to advise you about auspicious days to start at your new job.
The Gandhige Angadi’s goods go well beyond Bangalore, stowed away in NRI suitcases. One of these is the legendary Bangalore Press calendar – a century-old State Press published, elegantly typeset, red bordered calendar that marks all holidays back home, and in a quick column indicates the status of the moon.
Sometimes, when I receive customized postcards from Bangalorean relatives settled abroad, I can spot within the family photograph a green or gold torana, a pair of brass diyas, or a small photo frame with Hanuman carrying a mountain of stories – and I find that the Gandhige Angadi stores much more than things in the name of God. It houses little nuggets of home.
Participated in this wonderful, wonderful theatre experiment, called Remote Bangalore. I wrote about it for Time Out Bengaluru for their January issue. Here’s an excerpt of the sort of awesomeness director Stefan Kaegi was up to.
Kaegi, the director of Berlin-based theatre company Rimini Protokoll, has taken cues from the world of online games, where hundreds of strangers “swarm out on virtual treasure hunts” to create Remote X. Only this time, the arena is an actual city and the players are citizens who engage with the city in an unconventional way. Fifty players will embark on a tour of Bangalore with the aid of radio headsets. A synthetic voice, like a GPS navigation system, will direct the horde, issuing instructions. The result promises to be intriguing, a human art installation with real-time vignettes of people in their urban surroundings.
In today’s digital world, human interactions often become remote, reliant on technology. Remote X throws up questions about artificial intelligence, free will, conformity and authority. It’s hard not to draw parallels with books like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; Spike Jonze’s movie Her, where a man falls in love with an operating system with artificial intelligence; and research such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments of the early ’60s, in which a controlled authority directed subjects to inflict shocks on strangers.
In Bangalore, Kaegi has got the synthetic voice rendered in what he calls “Indian English”. The version is called Deepa. Kaegi said that she’s quite different from Siri, the iPhone voice application. Siri has been designed to dispense information, while Deepa gives directive,” said Kaegi. “Siri is a programme. Deepa is a script.” Deepa has been set to an original score by Niki Neecke, a music designer who is currently a resident artist at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. The score will have cues such as hawker cries, blaring horns and political rallies.
You can read the rest of the story here.