Bangles & Betelnut in Basavanagudi

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.

Voices Off

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.

A Hundred and Twenty Four

When I am not considering the cleanliness of my navel, I remember to be grateful for empathy and the strange and wonderful places it takes me to. That on a quiet day, at an unsuspecting moment, I can find kinship in odd vulnerabilities at the corners of everyday tedium. That I can find myself in unusual shoes.

I find me in that child’s two-second pause while he registers he just let his helium balloon go. I am in that breathless shock of cold the construction worker feels when he empties a mug of water on his head. I am that 12 year old who goes on stage during a wedding reception, shakes the groom’s hand awkwardly, and walks off self-conscious. I am in the awkwardness of the waiting girl who absently checks her phone. I am in the unconvincing excuse the belated boy comes up with.

I am that friend at the birthday party who gave the birthday boy money instead of a wildly exciting video game. I am that girl posing in a group photograph, who never knows what to do with her hands – should she assume intimacy with the person next to her by draping her hand across his shoulder, or does he mean something to hold his waist? I am the urchin at a bakery glass display, eyeing a sickeningly rich pink pastry. I am the gentleman determinedly not looking at the bent girl’s gaping neckline.

I wince when the parlour lady threads the 16 year old’s supple upper-lip. I feel the itchiness of the monkey cap the diabetic grandfather has been forced to wear. My gut chills like the man who learns he has placed second on the reality show. I am homesick like the silhouettes in the windows of an interstate bus pulling out of those last few stretches of city, watching people ride in the opposite direction, homesickness mounting as they get closer home. I feel the strain in my arms from that girl who ferries her uncomfortable mother on her scooter. My toes flex for texture when a hawker takes to the tar road by foot. I pinch my eyes shut imagining the acridity of the beedi that man smokes.

I’m convinced that the maker is an amateur artist in pursuit of his perfect drawing, for he keeps tracing and retracing our borders over and over again. All that makes us different from each other are the wisps and ghosts between Pilot-pen-drawn lines. Our anomalies are errors by his hand that could well be attributed to bumps in cosmic paper. Maybe to make up for this, he threw in the gift of empathy, that we may see ourselves past those hazy, rakish lines. Maybe, with empathy, he wants us to fill in the colours.

Or maybe, just maybe, empathy was his way of saying sorry for loneliness.

An Unofficial Nike Ad.

Pull out your old marathon tee.
Put it aside to change into when you’re done.

Wear your still-wet-from-the-downpour-day-before shoes. And run.

Ditch the app. Fuck the playlist. Run. Feel your muscles heave. Feel the eyes of strangers on you when you run a pace they know is too quick to keep up. Feel the confusion of the stray that wants to chase you, but cocks its head in amusement instead. Feel the rattle in your chest; feel the real, heavy, throbbing thing in it. Feel your thirst hiss in your ears.

Run. Count every step, every stumble, every struggle for breath. When your numbers stray, start over. Taste the ash of your lungs burning, and regret every sigh that escaped you in your hours of darkness. Respond to the cadence of your punishment; bead after bead of inaccessible sweat, thud after thud of your own growing heaviness.

Cut the air with soft-formed fists. Obey the lay of the path. Bend when the road bends. Jump when the road gapes. Brave the tree’s curious branch with a gash on your cheek. Notch every time you pass your house, your lane, your neighbour’s big blue SUV. Be amazed at the mechanics of how your calves tug, the balls of your toes spring you forward, your knees flex — and you, tiny, insignificant you, glide over; your run, a holy trinity between gravity, inertia, and human will. It is you that the earth resists. You are the action the earth is in reaction to. What other vindication do you seek?

Fall in step with your body. Revel in your mind’s dread.

Go home to a mirror that cannot cloud with doubt. Rummage your soul for some sadness, imagine an insecurity, and watch your body not give a single, solo, solitary or even a half-a-hearted fuck. Learn how no god, no guide, no good word carried you through — like you, and your two feet did.

Run. And stop after greatness.
It’s where you will trespass, again, tomorrow.

A Hundred and Twenty Two

It begins when you knock over an ink bottle with your elbow.

You blink, registering what your clumsy, wayward elbow has done. A conspiracy of blue rushes in hurried whispers across an ever-growing island, corrupting weave after weave of checkered tablecloth. You wince, like it is a vase falling, and you wait for its clipped final complaint. You gather the cloth in a bid to make amends. You don’t know it yet — but you never really believed the cloth would be red and white again. You blink. The blue has seeped through the parched cotton and filmed the polished wood like watery oil. It is on your hands. All over your hands. In your hands, burrowing deep in the grooves between the whorls of your fingerprints. You cannot wipe your hands on your jeans. The back of your throat tastes like salt and rust.

Your hands are a wet royal blue.

You sit on the most unassuming surface available, willing your arms to dislodge themselves. You lean against the wall, you exhale. You loosen muscles one by one. You watch your arms. The veins slowly, with all the will of osmosis, turn a knotted blue. The tendrils, the frail capillaries all blue. Your skin looks like naked paper with all its intentions laid bare.

In your heart is a choir of cellos, thick moans of stringed viscera that ripen your ventricles and valves and walls to a sore tenderness. Your nose tingles. Your eyes sting, and your vision blurs dark.

You catch a blue teardrop. Then twenty.

Delayed Gratification. And Chow Chow Bhath.

Only recently did it click in my head, that I eat sandwich borders first, the creamed biscuit second, and my cake’s icing last.

Perhaps it is a sign of persistent middle-class manners – or just a persistent middle-class mother – but I’m afraid delayed gratification is quite a reflex for me.

I’d like to imagine that this was our society’s designers’ way of ingraining in us this unrelenting faith, this habit that believes that wading through the hard things will bring us to the good. Like it is a system of motor-memorizing optimism itself. The causes for my hoard-the-happy behaviour are fairly easy to peg: endless waits for birthdays and foreign-returning aunts, blindly promised and mostly achieved percentages, piggy banks that refused to fill up, spinach that refused to finish, black buckles that refused to break. In my young double-pig-tailed head, it was an ancient barter system of karma via dharma. Every vacation was earned by an exam. Every cloud of misty breath was earned by standing in the cold.

This revelation dawned on me midway through — my Chow Chow Bhath.

For the uninitiated, Chow Chow Bhath is a dish that brings together inverted cupfuls of kharabhath and kesaribhath. Kharabhath is a thinly disguised form of upma, horror in the form of spiced semolina gunk that features in many children’s tiffin box disappointments. Kesaribhath – is sweet ambrosia; upma’s beautiful, profound, fun sister whom you meet at a supremely boring house party and wonder, “Gee, which one was adopted?”

There was an exact point in my wolfing that fateful Chow Chow Bhath that this epiphany happened: when I found that I had bolted through 70% of the Upma (urf Kharabhath), and had not even touched the Kesaribhath yet. That meant, it would leave too much sweet to eat at one shot, and I’d have to pace it between spoonfuls of offensive Kharabhath (alias Upma).

So you see, this Chow Chow Bhath is a Trojan Horse in our house of binary: it simply blanches the 0s and 1s with all that ghee. It is an inconvenient truth: but you cannot finish all the Kharabhath and singly relish the Kesaribhath. Once your sadness has been conquered, your happiness diminishes in value in its abundance. Because good and bad do not follow through in a crest-trough pattern, and are not enjoyed void of the other. They stand like adjacent houses – a pretty one, and an ugly one – a sight that you take in its entirety. Like two blobs of spiced and sweetened semolina.

And yet, it is fitting that this musing on delayed gratification opened such a simple way of working out that one thing we want most for ourselves; that thing we lose to ephemera. Inevitably, it is that one thing we save for last. It is the thing we wait to do at the end of the day, when all our wealth to squander is time and quiet and heart. When we can sit on a bench, and swing our legs, and chew with luxury and deliberation.

For me, it is this. Sitting here and sewing in, word after word.

A Hundred and Twenty One

The most important lesson I learned at a swimming pool is from a time before when I could swim.

I loved our school swimming pool. It was crystal blue, large, square, and tiled white. On many early mornings, I’d sit at the bleachers with my back to the field, and watch the gentle swells of the water. Whenever a breeze blew moisture my way, I’d open my mouth and swallow whole chlorine-and-pine wetness.

The pool was always a playful brimful. Its fullness would toy with my limited understanding of surface tension – that although the water bobbed and threatened to erupt, it never did. It flirted with the rules of confinement; laughing garrulously at the prudish well-cut white boundary, but always gathering its skirts before spilling over.

It was a pool with personality – a fiery mentor befitting a school that groomed young ladies. It was a living, breathing thing whose belly would shudder, and it would cluck its tongue at winds that took themselves too seriously. It would put up a fight when little girls with blubbery thighs in neon swimsuits would thrash about blindly. It would coax into its vast care crying children who’d rub their eyes to rid themselves of tears, shame, and chlorine.

During monsoons, it was pitter-patter company when I’d sit in my buttoned-up cardigan and play with raindrops that clung to the chain-link fence, using the ends of my plaits like paintbrushes. The pool’s deep end would be a liquid emerald, light winking in its depths and running a cold current through the backs of my knees.

It was the year I was finally assigned my house colour. Red. It was Spring.  The trees that arched over the pool sent flying kisses to the water below, and the pool would blush in concentric, ever-expanding circles – an endless charade that I’d watch with my fingers tangled in the diamonds of the wire-fence. Pink lips of flowers would caress blue and tuck themselves at the far ends of the pool, waiting for the exasperated pool-cleaner.

That day, he was even more exasperated.

Bright coloured ropes had been drawn to mark tracks, and a sound system had been set up. The synchronised-swimming team adjusted each other’s bright blue swim-caps, and waved at familiar faces on the other side of the fence. The swim coach was in a starch-stiff salwar and her stainless steel whistle flashed a sunlit smile.

We made crepe-paper pom-poms for each other. We yelled jingles. Our team is dynamite, our team is dy-na-mite. Our swimmers huddled, a devout teacher crossed herself, and the speaker crackled. The swimmers stood on the starting blocks. The more conscious ones snapped the ends of their suits. A few stretched. A few tensed. My favourite senior’s thigh muscle rippled. A shot sounded.

The girls sprang like jaguars and splashed us onlookers. They sliced through the water, and flipped under to turn around, and my senior took the lead — when the girl next to me screamed. Red blossomed on my white skirt and in my hands. My pom-poms had bled colour. A few of the older girls exchanged meaningful looks and breathed. One girl caressed my head.

We sailed the relay. We broke for lunch. We jostled for seats in the front row. Our house was leading, so we hooted and whooped. It was now the 200 meter race.

The swimmers lined up, but it was an unusual time for quiet.

The last swimmer to limp her way to her block was Sheroza. Sheroza had survived a near-fatal accident two years before. She had lost her brother, and had come back to school a completely different person. She touched her toes with a little effort. She snapped on her goggles. Her black Speedo cap banded and hid her tight curls. Her eyes seared the track ahead, and an angry long gash ran the length of her right leg.

I winced when the shot rang.

The girls were off. They butterflew their way down their tracks, golden, glorious wings spanning conquests that day and forever more. The swimmers tumbled under water and rose again, water phoenixes rising lap after lap. And yet, the only chant on everybody’s lips: She-ro-za. She-ro-za. She-ro-za.

Silence fell. The girls from our house finished first and second. Six tracks had finished the race. But everyone’s gaze was riveted to the seventh: Sheroza. She turned her last tumble. The trees hushed each other. The water quivered when Sheroza’s arms would break from the pool’s face, and slide back under. Break. Slide. Break. Slide. A pensive bird’s wing-beat on her way home. It escaped someone’s lips, “Come on Sheroza!” Sheroza surfaced, and hiccuped a sob. Break. Slide. “Come on Sheroza!” Break. Slide. The six other girls in the pool wiped their eyes. Water lapped at the sides of the pool, heaving and rooting for Sheroza. “Come on Sheroza!”

The other swimmers hugged Sheroza for a long time and she cried, and cried. The rest of us couldn’t stop clapping and sniffling.

The pool hummed softly, and waited.

I was 22 when I learned to swim; when I learned of the cadence of water – and that its power is in how it can make even light buoyant. I learned to disperse tears amidst its molecules. I learned of its haunting shadows in my shivers and crimped fingers on chilly November nights. I learned of its parallel universe with its own quality of silence. I learned of the sculpting qualities of water; its soft, painless chiseling at everything we hate about ourselves – our bodies, our lethargy, our fear.

With a little help from refraction, water can throw light on how just a little wetness is enough to unsettle us.

And yet, water is what it takes.

A rectangle of it. An ocean of it. A cloudburst of it. A fountain of it.

Water takes into her lap our rough edges, our unrelenting realities, that we may break from her surface as brilliant sparkling victors.