135

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.

134

On days I am unsure, I take heart in certain certainties: the gratification of popping open a vacuum-sealed bottle. The feel of my toes in my bedtime socks. The openness of a good-natured dog. Morning light on my carpets. Ghee and steaming rice and salt.

This past year, I have been frequently unsure. Of my shoe size. Of what exactly a cooking instruction has meant. Of whether “this past year” covers the time frame I have in mind. Of if I feel like pizza, crackers, or nothing for dinner. Of where the time goes between mornings, and if my shirts have gotten too big for me.

Unsure of whether I had read this story or that, and what I’d felt about each. Unsure: about feelings being things worth feeling sure about.

But, there are certain certainties, and sure sureties. The shock of tabebuias and the thrill of double rainbows. The ache of unsent letters and ungiven gifts. The shriek of the first breath I will draw in a cold swimming pool. 06:30 in Ode to a Sunny Day. Butterflies before reaching the airport. Figs and Feta cheese. Dirty blue jeans. “That’s all?” when I see my savings. My name, written in somebody else’s hand. A delicious first line. That I will fail at love, at least once a day. That my lip will tremble when Amelie turns to her tinkling curtains to find only her cat. That every day, there is nothing more useful to carry than a thimble of grace.

That so often, certainty is surprise.

133

Habitat:

A billowing of curtain
A bloom of tissues
A breeze of newspapers
A dock of dishes

The babble of kettle
A whistle of window pane
Eddies of fallen hair
A gurgling washing machine

A clap of laughter
A meadow of books
Crags of peeling paint
A thicket of socks

A tree of tired jackets
A sunset of dust
A marsh of spent tea-leaves
An autumn of pizza crust.

132

I sat beside an old, old man on the train.

His face was a careful collection of lines: big, ragged brackets mounted on top of each other. The entire time, he sat with an indulgent smile, his shining cheeks prodding his eyes to shut and truly savour his joy a little longer — because before him, stood his apple-faced granddaughter. He held a delicate sweater in his large, shaking hands, perhaps amused by how impossibly small it seemed, perhaps afraid of how fragile the moment was. He eased the little girl’s arms in with elaborate care, patiently coaxing her spread eagled fingers through the sleeves. He paused to inspect her dew-drop fingernails. His thick fingers took great pleasure in their struggle to needle the pomegranate-seed buttons in their eye-holes; one by one, station after station, dreading the fast-approaching last button.

The Ways We Leave

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.

New White Rain

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.

Mushroom Soup for the Vegetarian Soul

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?