zubaan-ke-beej-black
zubaan ke beej

She had been waiting to go home for years now.  She couldn’t wait to see again, the valleys of Punjab, the blackbucks roaming through the wheat fields, the cantonment in Dilli that she had been born in.  She came back the way she had been carried away: through foot and on bullock carts, with descendants of the people who had packed their belongings in pots when they were ordered to move to Daulatabad in 1327.

The zubaan ke beej, the seeds of the language, were sown in the pahadi rastas of eleventh century Punjab, when Arabic and Persian met for the first time. She spent her infancy known as Ordu, after army camps. But she was also born in a bazaar, formed when traders simplified their languages to understand each other. She would expand and contract depending on who poured in during invasions. Though to be completely accurate, it was the Sufis of the north who were responsible for who she became. They were proficient in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, and adept at picking up other tongues, and as they made their way into the Deccan, it was in their mouths that the languages first mixed.  Once in the Deccan, she absorbed herself into the landscape, and sprouted as Dakhini, or Dakkan ki zubaan. She was shaped by Braj Bhasha, and matured in laterite blocks, basalt basins, and dry tropical forests. For her, Urdu was the base, to be topped with Kannada, Telegu and Marathi words.

In the Deccan, she resided in teachings of the Sufis, Kadam Rao Padam Rao, and Mohammed Quli Qutb’s Shah’s poems. Masnavi or, couplets of poetry was created in her honour. She was spoken in markets, in homes, and even by kings. She was alive in the songs sung by women when they spun silk and ground millet at the stone- the charkha namas, the chakki namas.  They sung that as they turned the chakki, so they would find God. At the spinning wheel, they sung about how if their bodies were mere spinning wheels, their tongues were the rim of the spinning wheels, and their breath was the thread.  When sung by married women, she became the suhagan nama. Accompanied by beats of the dholak, they used her to compare their mother-in-laws to hot chilli peppers.

the-return

But by the time she returned, three hundred years had passed since Alauddin Khilji’s conquest. There had been more wars, more structures erected and crushed. And as she blew around the spaces that she had once known, her euphoria began to ebb. The cantonment had been replaced by a tomb and a garden. She was no stranger to tombs in the middle of gardens, but this structure didn’t strike her as home. Oh, they were still domes and pillars and niches and lattice work. But suddenly she would encounter an arch where there shouldn’t be one. The material was smoother and polished, difficult to sink into.  It frightened her because it was like meeting a doppelganger: someone physically the same, but differently nuanced, whose sole purpose was to haunt her. Even the elevation of the landscape was different. Instead of rising like a table, the ground was folding itself to prepare for a mountain range. And suddenly, there were white people who bore the smell of the sea, who spoke yet another tongue- a clipped speech that resided only in the mouth, instead of rolling out of the upper palate and throat.

She thought about all the things she had done to get back home. She had changed her name several times, each one a subtle shift in her identity. Because she passed through Gujarat, she was briefly known as Gujri, and as she approached Dilli, she became Dehlavi. Then they called her Hindawi – because she was like Hindi, but not exactly – courtesy of the tatsam Sanskrit that Telegu and Kannada had imparted to her. She was also referred to as Zaban Hindustani: the common man’s tongue. On the other hand, the Urdu that she had left behind had grown up to become Rekhta, a severely Persianised form, and polished beyond recognition. More suited than her by far to compose verses in. According to Rekhta, they barely shared syntax now; they had nothing else in common. Rekhta belonged to the likes of Amir Khusrau, would belong to Mirza Ghalib, while Dakhini was like a parent embarrassing her child by her coarseness.

dakhini-is-compared-to-these-instruments
If Dakhini would be an instrument

Dakhini had thought the land would remain ba-dastoor; unaltered. That it would lie in wait to receive her. But the soil did not allow her to percolate anymore. Back in Dilli, no one wanted her. She had still held on to the Old Punjabi, the remnants of what happened when Arabic and Persian combined, but to the people of Dilli, she was a strange corruption. They forgot that she had once been Ordu; a grandmother to the language they now spoke. But they did treat her as if she was obsolete. As if she was already an artefact.  Like the way the Homo sapiens would have treated the Neanderthals. The bagpipes to a violin. They thought she was earthy, crude and primitive. They had already begun to call her Qadim Urdu, old Urdu. And then the country split, causing her vocabulary to divide. They called it Diglossia, although for her, it was a personality disorder. Holes were wrenched out of her and transplanted somewhere else. Today, she is barely even considered a language, and relegated to be a dialect of Urdu, when it should be the other way around. She is the older one; the one who became stable enough for extraction, at a time when Dilli was so plagued by invasions that no language was able to form entirely.

the-instr
If North-Indian Urdu would be an instrument

Language is the invisible conquest. It is obtained without wanting, received without asking. Today, Dakhini is a lehja, or an accent. She resides in the ‘aan’; a suffix that indicates plural, in the nasalisation of the rains, in the aspiration of consonants, in the condensation of long vowels.  In the ‘naako’ instead of ‘nahi’, in the ‘bolat’ instead of bolata, in the ‘ya’ suffix to indicate past tense- the dhundhaiya instead of dhunda. In the absence of idioms and proverbs that the Urdu of the north is a treasure trove in.

Therefore, it’s difficult to grasp her. She was born out of adaptation, and she cannot help but adapt, cannot help but slip into different forms to protect herself. To do what she could not in the north. Today, there are many different kinds of Dakhini spoken, depending on the region. There is the Hyderabadi-Dakhini, which influences Bidar- Dakhini, except Bidar-Dakhini contains an influence of Kannada. She is spoken in Bijapur, and, around the peripheries of Maharasthra, she has a strong influence of Marathi. She still resides in the Deccan, since her homecoming was never completed. Today, even the people who speak her do not know that they speak her, and with each passing year she seeps through the the laterite, collecting in aquifers formed by slices of basalt. The way water collects in underground wells, waiting to be discovered. She hasn’t run dry; she just no longer spills into the landscape. But those that have deep roots can never be blown away, and so, she continues to spread over the South, adopting more and more words, broadening her reach, and enfolding more languages within.

First published on Offprint as :

http://www.offprint.in/article/2342/

img-20160820-wa0018

“Do you understand what I am saying?” Moiniyar Khan asks me. I am Bidar right now, have come for the sole purpose of documenting the languages spoken here. Without waiting for a reply, he inquires after the languages that I speak.

Tumhari zubaan kya hain?”

“English. And Hindi.  “ I reply.

Aur Urdu aati hain?” he asks. Do I know Urdu? I make a vague motion in the air. The Urdu that I am familiar with appears only in Bollywood music, in the occasional shayiri that my grandparents recite from time to time.

“Bagaer Urdu, khatati samajh nahi aati.”  You can’t understand khatati without Urdu, he says. Nevertheless, he begins explaining this art of Urdu calligraphy by explaining the mechanics of the language that it is written in. He clasps his fingers together, forming an interlocked knot like the pattern at the entrance of the Abdul Faid Khanqah.

“Just like the Roman alphabet, the Urdu alphabet also has 26 letters. A B C – Alaph Bey Pey,” he says.  “It developed out of constantly writing Arabic. Like a joint handwriting, except prettier. And there have been nine changes in the Khatati design since it came into being. “

He pauses. “And there are two types of Khatati. The first one is rooted deeply in Arabic, and is only used for the Qoran. That is known as Khatati suls. The second is Khatati nusk. “

He pauses again, waiting for me to catch up. And after writing it down, I read his words back to him to make sure that I have put them down correctly. I am able to understand his words only in their most basic form- the way you grasp at the gist of an unknown word when you read it in a sentence. I know Urdu as an inherited, diluted tongue because it has been passed down to me only from my father, and the Urdu Moiniyar Khan is speaking is more complex than I expected. Hindi is my second language by miles, but my access to it is like a qanat1 system- speaking it for long intervals creates a flow; makes me more capable of creating depths and discovering words buried inside.  The more I excavate, the more I can revive it. But with Urdu, there is only what there is and no more. With Urdu, there are no words that can be found.

“N-u-s-q-u-e, “Moiniyar Khan says, placing a finger over the incorrect spelling. “Aliph.”  Once he is satisfied with my penmanship, he reaches behind him and pulls out a box as weathered as his fingers. This is what is inside: round bottles of ink, blades, tapering fountain pens, paintbrushes, a rectangular whetstone, pieces of rosy brick. He picks up the blade and it turns out to be a pen. It is the slant that he is after, which writes like a length of ribbon. The blade is sheepsfoot and the paint bottles unscrew in a cloud of black and brown specks.

“They are all spoilt.” Moiniyar Khan says. His ink has run dry, his cutters have blackened. His  daughter brings him a steel container full of water, and he tips it into the bottles, waiting for sludge to form. He says that he used to make the ink by grinding small stones; kankad, but it wasn’t permanent, which is why he shifted to the Camel brand. He takes my A4 cartridge sheet drawing book from my hands and prepares to write something.

Sabse pehle, char line maarna. “ He says. Before starting on the calligraphy, I should draw four lines. He dips blade into ink bottle and draws the pen from right to left four times. The lines fade away before he has finished. The colour is brown- he is drawing with dust.

“The paper is absorbing water.” I observe.

“The pen is more suited to glazed paper.” Moiniyar Khan counters. He picks up another blade and rubs it against the whetstone, evening the edges out.

“Nib ko cut karna padta han. Stone ke upar is tarah karna padta hain.” He says. These nibs you get ready made. Otherwise, you buy and cut.  Slowly, he draws his knees to his chest to serve as a drawing board, and begins again. And in between drawing, he tells me something about his life.

His initiation into the craft began through the self. He had no teacher; he started by copying headings, by tearing out strips of newspaper and working through them himself.

Hum apne khud se seekhe. Koi teacher nahi tha hamara.” He has a book that he used to refer to, but in Urdu, so even when I flip through it, it is of no use to me. He has a book which he has created also. An album of all those pieces of newspaper, of all the verses that inspire him, but that too is in Urdu.

I try out all the pens. Most of them squeak, the ink in them dried up like the water in the qanat. Once, the ink flowed. This was before computers, when wedding invitations were written by hand. Now everyone prints, he says. Everyone does everything digitally. There is no use for him anymore. But this is not to imply that he does not have any work. There was a girl in the community who won a scholarship to drama school. There, she was given the role of the queen of fairies, and her mother was so proud that she got him to make a pink and black tiara for the occasion. He also made a khatati monogram for the Karnataka Charitable Trust, Humnabad district, Bidar. His portfolio consists of verses: yahan se phan khatati ka silsila shuru hota hai. Writings shaping pigeons. Golden wedding cards, with small domes incorporated on top of long stalks. Some of the words he has taken from the Rangin Mahal, and he says that in certain parts of the palace, a split shell was used to carve the inscriptions. I learn that there are tremors that run up and down his arm, which is why he can only teach now. Even what he is showing me is just a demonstration. He is the only one in Bidar who practices this craft now.

Access to a language is constructed like a flute. A hollow rod with holes on the top. A qanat is a system which is basically this kind of technology. A series of interconnected wells.  Technically, it is a structure used to lead trapped underground water from the interiors of hills to expanses of land.  The qanat was brought to Bidar by Mahmud Gawan in the 15th century, and built to transport water to Bidar fort. But it seems that people forgot about it, forgot a thing like that even existed. Recently, the area was being mapped, and when the mouth of the qanat was discovered, no one knew what it was. Most of it was covered in vegetation, and inside, frogs, porcupines and thirteen foot snakes had taken up residence.  The access points were all suffocating and filled with mud. Reeking of disuse.  It had to be dug out again. When I stood inside the qanat, it was like standing inside a vein of the city. Veins collapse when empty, and when people stop reaching for a language, a similar thing happens.  As a child, my father was enrolled in a school where Urdu was the main language of instruction. But he has forgotten pieces of the script now because he never needed to use it again. And that is the problem: that the vernacular is no longer something to aspire to.

I take the pen from Moiniyar Khan and try to copy his strokes. He is willing to teach, but only if somebody is willing to learn. He doesn’t say a word, rheumy eyes following my hand. I try to replicate exactly what he has made. There is method to approach a script, but I am focusing only on getting it to look right.  As I am writing, he says that I can’t learn khatati by just copying it. He tells me how the most magnificent examples of Khatati can be seen in the Abdul Faid dargah, in the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, even at the entrance of the khanqah that I had spotted it for the first time. I know that Arabic is taught in a khanqah, that the teaching at the Abdul Faid khanqah is for free. I know this because the day before, I had encountered a member of the Sufi brotherhood there. Tariqa Hussaini had mentioned that ten years ago, there used to be six maulanas, and all seats used to be filled. Now, the number- of both- has dwindled.

When I finish, Moiniyar Khan looks at what I have done. He has pulled out spectacles from somewhere, and they are perched on his nose. Meanwhile, I look around. His house is constructed out of bricks of laterite, and the holes that make it porous give it the appearance of wine coloured coral. The door to his inner quarters is painted a vivid Persian blue. A neem tree grows at the entrance. There is Panther sewing machine on a table.  An orange rubber duck tucked behind clothes. He is probably a grandfather. There is a pocket sized book which has fallen open on the ground. Phone numbers and addresses are scrawled in it, with an asterisk and a short note under the ones which have changed. The addresses are scribbled in English, the notes under them in Urdu.

This is how language is not like a qanat system: it endures. It finds a form to dwell in. Like water. Dakhini, a language of Bidar, is an example. Once upon a time, it was the Muslim court language of the Deccan. In Bidar, I learned that it had become the most common street language in cities of the South, like Hyderabad, Aurangabad, and even Bangalore, the city of my residence. And in Bidar, I strained my ears to hear it, but whoever I asked – auto-drivers, women washing clothes in enclosures, said that they didn’t speak it.

Until I realised that I was chasing a Dakhini that no longer existed. Until I realised I have already heard some of its forms before. I have heard it echo in Hyderabadi Urdu- a variant so different from the Hindi-Urdu that I know that it might as well be from a different family.  I have heard its strains in the Kannada- Marathi words of the woman who told me to go to the Papnatha temples instead of lurking in her alley. Language, I realised, is a palimpsest. Any representation is not an absolute image, but a work in progress. It holds evidence of all the tongues who have ever uttered it. Even now, it changes: taking words on loan, giving some up; its surface is its depth. Moiniyar Khan might be speaking it right now, which would explain my more-than-usual struggle for comprehension. So need I worry about forgetting?

But this is the other problem: we are more concerned with conservation rather than usage, with preservation rather than need. Languages were not meant to be stored. Syntax was not meant to gather dust in a museum, to be rewound and heard through film.   Languages have died, and they die when we leave them no space to grow, when we crush the structures that support them. I, myself, have come here to document the tongues in Bidar, rather than learn them. And we document things to prove that they happened. Things that we consider elusive and short-lived. Things that we don’t think will happen again. Sometimes I wonder if the vernacular is becoming a refugee. Like the Syrian people. Their homes have been destroyed, and they look for a land that can take them in as its own.

Moiniyar Khan pats me on the shoulder. He picks up a wider blade and draws over what I had copied, making adjustments and thickening lines that had shaken. Changes that I could never have made, even by looking. To my eye, both look identical enough.   He looks at me, takes off his spectacles and says “Lekin nakal karne ke liye bhi akal ki jarurat hai.” Even to copy something, you need a measure of understanding.  

“I can teach you if you wish.” He says. “I can teach you Urdu also. Hindi theek se samajh aati hai na?

We let that sentence hang. Even I am not sure at this point.

this article was first published in Offprint Magazine: http://www.offprint.in/article/1842/

  1. A qanat – pronounced kanaat– is a gently sloping underground channel with a series of vertical access shafts, used to transport water from an aquifer under the hill. They create a reliable supply of water for human settlements and irrigation in arid and semi- arid climates.

You can find me in a museum now. But my first residence was the mind of Carl-Arne Breger. He was a Swedish Industrial designer who became famous for object design. He envisioned me in painted and chromed metal- as a foldable cup, with an underlying hot plate from Rorstrand Ceramics. My insides in galvanized stainless steel and a pistachio green cuboid as a base. Length: forty centimetres, width: forty-four centimetres, height: forty centimetres. I changed lives, got embroiled into a discussion between genders and even created a whole new food culture.

You may have heard of me.

I am the microwave oven. But more specifically, I am Carl Arne-Breger’s Cupol Microwave Oven for Husqvarna. An attempt at revolution. In Carl’s mind, I was shaped curiously. I was half of a sphere; modelled on a cupola. Almost like an embryo. My date of birth? 1969. I was his brainchild, created for the Swedish company Husqvarna. It was the children of my brother-a 1967 Amana-who are the shape that you are most familiar with now; the hollow box which is now a fixture in so many kitchens.

As our shape evolved, our function devolved. We devolved from what is considered to be the thought process of the predominantly male engineer. We did go through a brief moment where we were celebrated as state of the art technology, and then were relegated to product, commodity.1 Let me translate that for you; from seen, we became unseen. Like those landline telephones. We’ve hit rock bottom now- an unremarkable appliance that you won’t even think about twice. That means my generation is obsolete. Don’t believe me? I was pinned on Pinterest into ‘Images: Retro circa 1960’s 1970’s’.

My brethren started to get stocked on shelves at a time when women started going back to the workforce. We are a product of revolution, yet we haven’t revolutionized much. We were created as a promise for male buyers2, but that promise didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. How do I know this? Well, the Industrial revolution eliminated the work of men (and children) – but left the domestic quarter, which was, and is, predominantly the realm of women, untouched. I mean, sure, now we allow women to cook in bulk, and children use us to heat up the leftovers, but that’s the thing: cooking. Women are still cooking. We reduced menial work, but not the time spent on the task. Manual cooking has not been eliminated, and our ownership has done nothing to encourage men to involve themselves in the process.  In a 1970’s microwave oven television commercial, a man helping in the kitchen is made light of:  “It makes the cook’s life easy. Of course, good help is still hard to find. ”

I’ve seen the marketing campaigns, and it’s overwhelmingly the happy housewives next to us; the well- coiffed, heeled women pulling out copper coloured roasts and describing how we made life easier for them, especially now that some them had paying jobs. “Supermoms”, those women are called. 3 I know that when we came into the market we were considered dangerous because we use electromagnetic waves- high frequency radio waves to excite the molecules in food. Our waves are not strong enough to genetically alter food, or make it radioactive, but people are afraid of big words. (Honestly, you should start calling cell phones microwave phone because that’s what they are, and seeing that most of the people in the world have them installed semi permanently as an ear-piece, maybe concerns about cancer and radiation poisoning should be redirected.) And then the companies were afraid that we won’t sell, so they marketed us through association and perception – the soft, non-threatening female population. We were created as something that men would buy, but we spent all our time being handled by women. Picking up the mannerisms of people you are constantly surrounded with is a very real possibility, and we decided to change our gender.4

But no one was using us to cook! There was one woman who used us to vary the amount of spice into different portions. She cooked the curry on her stovetop, divided it up into bowls, and used us to assimilate different quantities of chilli in each portion. That’s it.  No one used us to- what did the advertisements say? Bake a potato in 5 minutes? Crisp bacon in 90 seconds? Cook a 5 pound rib roast in 35 minutes? I may look like something out of which a Thanksgiving Dinner is produced, but my nieces and nephews are too… well, square, for anyone to entertain thoughts of roast chicken and turduckens. The other day, a group of foreign exchange students were exchanging the hacks of easy, effortless, inexpensive meals. 5The Asian girl was explaining  how she was using me to cook rice in a bowl. I was simply not prepared for the shocked outburst of the gathering. One girl –Indian, I think- just flat out refused to believe that I could be used to actually cook something. Another girl narrated how her father had tried to cook an egg in a microwave, and it had exploded inside. I could almost unscrew my bolts out in frenzy. And I had once been described as ‘The greatest cooking discovery since fire’. I mean, some people in Sweden have started hiding cash inside us.

I think it was Ruth Cowan who said that women stopped using us to cook because it was too much of a pain to open us, take things out, stir them and put them back inside. Also, she postulated that most of the things that we made tasted terrible. Well, the micro wave was used to spot Nazi warplanes on their way to bomb British Isles; our principle wasn’t really to make things delicious, Ruth.

There aren’t a lot of me around; not unless you count the rounded ones with the lift-lid. But my box shaped nieces and nephews have become so common that they are renewed constantly, and consequently dumped with the slightest excuse; one door half-unhinged, with birds of carrion circling in the sky. Some of them have been selected for organ donation, but it’s really arbitrary. I suppose it depends on who bought them in the first place. Some people sell them to Goodwill, and they are harvested for glass and metals which would be toxic to the environment. Some people just put them on the Defrost mode, shut the door and they end up in a black bag in a garbage truck. Some people cut the vacuum tube, and our bodies end up in landfills, and then we rust and decay for generations, just like every other abandoned electronic gadget; and we’re not that dangerous as they come. But since we don’t procreate the way humans do, it would be nice if parts of us would still circulate around. You have no idea how hard it is to see entire wastelands of corpses which can still be put into use but aren’t, and with new of us constantly factory generated. Just because I don’t follow any religion doesn’t mean my afterlife should be selective. If growth is just a secondary spin off which reveals an architecture that is already configured6, then my manner of growing is in the different ways that I am able to be used.  Growing allows people to bridge the gap between the now and the then; hence, if I am now used as storage for cash, maybe instead of being ashamed of it, I can take pride in it. In traditional Hindu systems, the human life is divided into four periods, where each period focuses on fulfilment and development of the individual, where the individual does profoundly different things7until they finally renunciate life. Why is this not relevant for me? Why can I not leave life one step at a time instead of clearly demarcated boundaries of life and death?

Museums are one of those curiously grotesque structures that blur that boundary, actually. And I would know. I’ve been in Röhsska  for ________ years. We’re housed in this semi-conscious, semi-alive state. We’re not like one of those Viking ships in Vikingskipshuset på Bygdøy, which have been dredged up from the bottom of the sea and are quite literally wrecks. All of us are usable, but we’re not used to do anything. This affects my integrity, and the integrity of the materials that were used to make me. Humans were given a heart to pump blood, lungs to pull and push out air, legs to wander the earth, arms to bring things close to them. Bodies are tools. They are made to be fixable, to be picked up and dusted off until they are unquestionably beyond repair. They were not made to be framed in bones. If the beauty of a design is in its function, then I am the ugliest thing in the world.

 

References

  1. Cynthia Cockburn, Susan Ormroad, Gender and Technology in the making (Sage Publications, 1994)

 

  1. Cockburn, Ormroad, Gender and Technology in the making

 

  1. This is a conclusion that I reached after watching 7 commercials about the microwave oven from the 1970’s. I also looked at several posters that advertised certain abilities of the microwave oven.

 

 

  1. Verbeek, P.-P., and P. Kockelkoren. The Things That Matter (DESIGN ISSUES. 14, no. 3: 28-42, 1998)

 

  1. This was a discussion with some fellow exchange students about our different food cultures.

 

 

  1. Hallam, Elizabeth, and Tim Ingold, Making and Growing: Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts, 2014

 

  1. Alban Widgery, The Principles of Hindu Ethics (International Journal of Ethics, 40(2): p 232-245, 1930). The Ashram system is one facet of theDharma concept in Hinduism, where the human life is divided into four periods; that of student, householder, retirement and renunciation. It is also a component of the ethical theories in Indian philosophy, where it is combined with four proper goals of human life (Purusartha), for fulfilment, happiness and spiritual liberation.

 

 

 

 

 

“I am not a Bangladeshi” affirms Shehnaz, as we prod her about her birthplace. She readjusts the pink dupatta over her head as she speaks – the wind pulled it off, revealing oiled, jet black hair, coiled into a knot on the top of her head. She is from New Delhi; born and brought up in a Muslim household, from the Ghaziabad region, the thirty-sixth sector. This year, she ruminates, she will complete eighteen years of marriage. We congratulate her, because that is what you do. For many of us, venturing into the stormy turbulence of first loves and relationships that threaten to crumble like a brittle marigold biscuit, eighteen years is a big number.  But she seems too young to have completed eighteen years of marriage; she cannot be beyond thirty surely? I do not yet see any lines on her face.  But we do not question, because how do you phrase a question like that? She sees it on our faces, because she tells us that she was married when she was twelve. Custom, she says. And anyway, she left her husband six years ago, and hasn’t heard of him since.

 

She smiles at us; in the snatch of her smile, there is a glimpse of paan stained teeth. We sit, stunned, or rather, the lack of anything to say. We bite our tongues, and cringe at our inadvertent blunder. But Shehnaz doesn’t pause. He was a drunk, she says nonchalantly; and he would drink away all her money. Conceiving a child doesn’t make a man a father, she says. Three sons, she has, and he wasn’t there for even one. What was the point of staying with him, she asks?

There is a deep rooted, but nevertheless, incorrect belief that domestic violence is prevalent only amidst lower class women. I know now for a fact that it isn’t true – and also the evidence before my eyes pleads otherwise. I always thought it was women of a lower social status who were unable to break free of the clutches of society, despite the many stories out there that contradict it. I only paid attention to the scandalous stories in US Weekly, Filmfare magazine; the flashy posters that grabbed the eye, and the headlines that screamed it. It is known as the Availability Heuristic;  retaining information that supports an already preconceived notion. Besides, for people who already have so less, what is there to lose when leaving a husband who doesn’t pull his weight?

At any rate, for Shehnaz, there is not a single day she can take off. She lives everyday on the basis of the trash that she collects; her daily bread depends on it. Plus, being a woman, there are always dishes to wash, vegetables to cut, food to cook, trash to segregate. She is relatively new, and the people in the surrounding societies do not know her, so she loses out on the extra five thousand rupees that she could earn as household help. What work do you do, we ask. Everything, she replies. The poor cannot afford to be choosy, she says. Besides, her sons used to go to school, but she took them out because she needed the money. Remember, there is no man in the house, she reminds us gently, and they do have to eat.

Perhaps the lack of a man in the house creates problems. She has friends whom she interacts with,  like Naseema. Naseema’s husband looks out for Shehnaz’s sons outside the community , yes, but still…she trails off into a silence. You have to understand, she says. Although we live together in one area, we don’t do things together, we don’t contribute to other households. There is quid pro quo, yes, but every family fends for themselves, regardless of how many members it contains. Even the trash that we saw, although scattered within the community, has some logic to it. Each mound belongs to a different family. We had walked up behind her when we entered the community, surprising her as she was washing dishes. There, on the skin between the nape of her neck and the arc of her kurta , were three pink welts rimmed with blue that ran down her back and threatened to impinge upon her neck. They looked as if they had been inflicted by a belt made out of leather. We ask her gently about it, in a roundabout way. Perhaps you fell into some shrubbery?  There are a lot of prickly plants around, dried branches with extensions like knobbly fingers.  No, she says.  There is nothing on my back. She denies the existence of these wounds.

There is another dwelling in the settlement. There, the people are relatively well off because they work as field hands when they go back to their villages. But they are not good people, Shehnaz says with a shake of her head, almost dislodging the dupatta again. She tells us about an altercation that had broken out between a man from that dwelling and one of her sons. Naturally she had to intervene. My mind goes back to those welts.  Perhaps the absence of a man in the house does have its negatives, despite the fact that her aadmi  used to drink, and I suspect, perpetuate domestic violence.

I feel like applauding her for leaving him, but what is the point? Feminism is good and all but it hasn’t made her life any easier, and how many Gulabi Gangs can exist, especially for itinerants? Despite biased thought, the fact remains that it is easier to exploit women of these conditions, because who can they tell? It is almost as if beatings are a predominant part of life, so leaving an abusive husband is mostly a question of choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea. She chose the sea, because although it is turbulent at times, it can also be counted upon to be tranquil, while a drunken husband can always be counted upon to be a menace.

The cold hard fact is that they don’t have much – apart from their thoughts. Being alone with your thoughts is dangerous ground. Socrates was executed. Others were beleaguered by society. But what about those who in their time off, can do nothing but think, because they do not have the resources to submerge their thoughts under layers of junk? And what if no constructive solution can emerge from these thoughts? I asked Shehnaz about her recreational activities, asked her if she likes to sing. On one of our first interactions, she graced us with a baul  song- “The golden hearted bird”- a song about longing and separation. She declined that thought. Sewing is something she likes to do too, and she often sews for Naseema, but it is strictly speaking, not recreational. Besides, it has already been established that it is every man for himself.

Being lonesome with your thoughts when you don’t see a brighter future can put you into a very dark space indeed. Shehnaz told us quite plainly that the poor cannot afford dreams. It is not as I had thought then – a child of poverty does not require a fertile imagination to escape daily drudgery. Dreams just make the grounding harder, Shehnaz says, and they cannot afford it. I wonder if she is talking about the dreams or the subsequent fall. After all, it is not a young girl’s dream to grow up as an itinerant; to wash dishes and mop floors for a living. It is not a young girl’s dream to live in a ramshackle house made of cloth and tin and bamboo and a leaking roof, to have three children whom she can barely provide for.

 

I ask her if she misses her home. With a smile on her face she talks about the rain that threatened to flood their village on an annual basis – and succeeded too. She moved because of gang violence in her desh; there was an altercation when a few members of a gang poisoned the water supply. People dropped like flies, she remembers. Her village was excluded because the elders guarded the boundaries. But when they returned after a prolonged absence, all she could see were torn remnants of huts, splinters of wood and corpses. The topic of death leads her to the topic of injury, and she tells us about a snake that she had stepped on in her girlhood; a cobra that she had mistaken for a coiled rope on the ground.

These memories flood back to her as she relates an incident from her childhood, and as she links it to her inability to educate her children, she breaks down and bitter tears start coursing down her cheeks. Tears well up like relentless waves and she buries her face into her dupatta. We sit, startled, helpless before such unexpected grief.

Through hiccups and occasional catches in her throat, I make some sense of the incoherent words that are pouring out like a torrent; a waterfall from which the boulder has been removed. What was the point of it all, she cries. What was the point of marrying a drunk, what was the point of having children when the bleak future holds for them a life no better than their mother? Out of her three sons, perhaps only her eldest who is just entering adolescence is destined for a slightly better life; she plans to teach him driving. He is still a bright eyed young boy harbouring dreams, and she fears that he will eventually become hard and bitter and curse his mother for not educating him, when her sore heart cries out that she would if she could. But she can’t!

 

Many of these villages impinge upon Maoist territory. Shehnaz says she is from Delhi. But from her stories emerge a far different world; a world where the sea laps upon the land, of fish and nets, of running feet and perpetrated violence. Even the words she uses to draw us into her story contradict their meaning. Their dialect, you see, is different. While Bengali is a language of shells and seas, Bangla requires one to force out a sound by placing the tongue between the teeth.

 

But then I think: how do you differentiate between a single land of composite culture by drawing a line across it and dividing it on the basis of religion? Language breaks up into different dialects as one proceeds along a road, it is something that happens. But she would feel culturally similar to a Bengali rather than a Marathi or a Gujarati, I should think. And for Shehnaz and Naseema, what do borders matter? For them it is just a bit of Bangla scoured away by the rain; a slight camouflage provided by the falling water.

They do not broach the subject of land or belonging; unless they stray into it inadvertently. When they realise it, they switch subjects, which, is as smooth as a practiced evasion, and fools no one. Makes one think – what information is so important that they won’t hint at it, even when unguarded? Their words, however speak far more than they realize. Shehnaz tells us with barely a tremor in her voice that there used to be Bangladeshis in the community, two or three, but they left some time back. She is from Delhi, she affirms yet again, tapping herself on the chest. Perhaps she even believes it now. After all, if you say something enough number of times, you start to believe in it – and nothing is harder than the pain of not knowing where one belongs. They have been forced to alienate themselves from their motherland and live in a nation that doesn’t accept them. Shehnaz spoke of how for many years she has not felt joy. Her wishes still include a cow or two that would eventually grow into a herd. A pakka house; one made of concrete, with a roof that isn’t buffeted by the wind as easily and frequently as their lives are.

 

She wipes her face with the back of her hands. I look at her callused palms and wonder how many tears it holds.  She still waits to reap the fruit of her work. The stacks of plastic and newspaper around her flutters as she cries, as if moved by the very force of her grief. It is bound up, ready to be sold. I wonder if they should use it instead, to make a thousand origami cranes.

This article was published on Offprint magazine

When the floods came, everything in our house got washed away. People tell me that I should consider myself lucky that our house still remained standing; that I am lucky precisely because I don’t have to begin again from scratch. But I don’t know why it remained stationary instead of being uprooted. It is built on a cliff, many layers sandwiched unevenly together like cake. The lock of the bathroom door had fallen out and inexplicably wedged itself in the crevice between two wooden floorboards. I had to tug it out using my index finger as a lever; prying it out until I could pull it out. My husband was particularly disgruntled about that; it was new in a new door; doubly secure, and that way, our neighbours wouldn’t pop in and borrow it from time to time. It stayed where it was. When they asked to borrow one after, my husband’s face was filled with glee when he informed them that we had made changes in our lifestyle which would make it impossible. We don’t use them anymore, he told them. He draped a hand over my shoulder, trying to make the decision seem in unity. His hand felt heavy and uncomfortable, and I didn’t know how to move, what to say. I felt if I moved and his arm fell off, he would be hurt and insulted.  Of course, he hadn’t thrown the old ones away. They lay locked into each other in a cloth bag under my bed. When a moon later, our neighbours’ carefully hoarded storage of grain and gold would be stolen, there would be a sliver of remorse on his face, rippling like water. He would try to come to terms with it by extending to them all the help that he could. He wouldn’t reveal the presence of the locks, but he would organize a union in which he would speak that in the face of so much uncertainty, we must function as a unit. That we only had each other. That morality was our only salvation. I didn’t know that I would remember his arm on my shoulder as the only evidence of such decisions. I would recall the event with such excruciating clarity, the way his fingers curled around my joint. Even though I hadn’t moved, I would remember leaning away from him, so only our hips touched, forming the letter ‘M’.

And then there was a switch that had, despite all odds, remained hanging, strung from an electrical cord on our roof. I was not in the house when the floods came. In fact, I wasn’t even in the village. I was in the city, trying to get my Aadhaar card made. I went for a day and stayed a week. The long lines of people just never ended, and I never moved forward. The officials insisted that families get their registration done together and it was equivalent to a genealogy tracing; people discovered cousins and aunts and uncles twice removed standing right next to them. And then there was me, standing alone. Static. I did not feel very kindly towards my husband; when the camp had come from the valley for a day, he was at home. He could have called me from the fields below, but he didn’t and never offered an explanation about it. When I returned home, weary and lonely, I found that he had built a makeshift tent for our neighbours. The inside of the walls were damp and frightening, the only thing that was alive was the switch. It swung with the wind and coincided with the rush of blood in my veins. Left from right, left to right, always oscillating in the same arc. At night, as we slept on a thin shawl, the switch looked like a sliver of moon that had been left behind.

When he became president of the union, he would often be away, meeting people, talking with them. Somehow, I thought the floods would be a new start. That everything would be washed clean and scoured thoroughly with sand, and we could begin again. But I would walk in the same greased footpath, defining it, deepening it, until the grooves became well worn. I would walk on tiptoe, my feet never really touching the ground; neither here, nor there, but somewhere in between.

So one day, I decide to walk on my toes. Not the pad, but on the soft skin under the nail. I tie a rope around the base of my throat and link it to a hook in the ceiling. My husband walks in on me struggling to construct steps on strips of feet, and letting out a roar, he barrels into me, and we collapse into the ground in a tent of fabric and limbs.  I try to explain to him that I am trying to feel what it is like to walk cushioned on air. He holds my head instead, and looks into my eyes; looking for dilated pupils, for the smell of burans on my breath. .  My dupatta has knotted itself into my hair, and he pulls it back. I think that he is going to hit me in anger- and he has never hit me before- but he begins to rub the top of my head in a circular manner that he feels will comfort me; murmuring that it will all become better. I am not thinking about him though. I am not even thinking about myself.  I am thinking about the sea, oddly. I have never been, but we had a neighbour, Sanjay, who worked as a waiter in Mumbai. In a pot where there ought to be tulsi, he had embedded Fibonacci spirals, halves of a bivalve molluscan shell and cowrie shells.  The first time I saw them, I asked if they were the bones of an animal that he has eaten.  He threw his head back and laughed sunnily. Dear child, he said, his thumb rubbing my lower lip. Dear child. And he gave me a spiny, spiral one to keep, which got lost in the flood. Sometimes, I imagine walking down to the river bed and sifting through all the residue and objects; wondering what I am looking for that has been lost.

But my husband brought a bangle for me on our wedding day. He slipped it over my bones as our clothes were being tied together. It is plastic and shiny around my wrist. It is supposed to be mud and baked with scaffolding of metal. It is supposed to have diamond shaped mirrors glued onto it, except the diamonds are oblong and yellow and painted on. This is logical, he said to me; that it would last longer. The mirrors wouldn’t fall because they were painted on, but I couldn’t help but think how ugly it was. Rimmed and bulging, a mockery of what he was supposed to get for me. It wasn’t even glass. I tried to tell myself that he was a practical, down-to-earth man but all the time I was really feeling that this was not a decision that I had wanted to leap out of practicality. We had plenty of time for that; we lived hand to mouth from rice to roti in an unforgiving, contoured environment, and just once, I had hoped that someone would get me something just because. Every time he would visit the flea market, I would be unable to hide my eagerness; I thought that he would get me a sari or a little trinket. It could even be a small packet of cardamom that I could put into tea and serve to the women.

“Did you get me anything?” I asked eagerly, the first time we were apart.

“I told you, the market is out of my way.” He said, not unkindly, rubbing his hair and flinging his coat to a corner.

But nevertheless, I would rub the bangle around my wrist each morning, wondering if today was the day I could take it off. I didn’t have to wear it anymore; I am no longer a newlywed, but if he got me something I would feel justified in locking it away.

One evening, the sky is a mess of torn strips of cloud.  I walk two hours down the valley to make a phone call. The telephone is almost broken, its base is a plastic square with rounded edges, and each part is connected with the other. Often, when I am waiting for the connection, I play a game with myself; I imagine the number of ways that the lines cannot meet each other. Today, I hand a few rupees to the whiskered man at the counter and begin to dial. The clouds have begun to roll and growl. The phone rings once, twice. On the seventh ring, someone picks up, but I put down the receiver instantly, the clank lost in a surge of thunder. As I shuffle outside, the man kindly slides a few steel circles over the counter. “The connection is bad in the weather. Wait for some time. Call your husband after the sky clears a bit,” he says, and I don’t correct him. He points to a warm, dry stool which is cushioned with brown jute sacking. It smells like chemicals and marigold biscuit and condensed milk. Like hay and grass. It is a warm, inviting smell, and it reminds me of summers spent in orchards and fields, milking cows and herding goats. Chewing blades of straw while watching a murder of crows fly into the sun. I want to stay, but I don’t know when my husband will be back. He might be back today; braving rain and thunder and wicked, slippery slopes to get home to me, and I must be there to receive him.

But he is away for a month. I get a word of mouth letter from a friend of a friend of an assistant who tells me that he will be back as soon as possible. So while he roams the districts aiming to become a candidate for the local political party, I keep house, pluck tiny green apricots from trees and rub the red line under my bangle. The years are telling; and the groove that it has worn into my skin is becoming black and purple.

He returns on a purple evening, flinging his coat into a corner. When he speaks no words to me, I go through his satchel; looking for something that he has put away for me and forgotten about. Perhaps an egg shaped pinecone, or a wildflower pressed dry between pages of a notebook. I find, instead, a single earring, diamond shaped and decorated with a mosaic of glass and mirrors. One side textured, and the other side smooth brass. And I do not confront him about it. Rather, a weight lifts off my shoulders, and I slip off the bangle, locking it away. I feel I have achieved a high mark after an exam. From the day on, I endeavour to be the most dutiful wife.  This is our begin-again. This is our clean slate.

But many moons later, in the presence of our neighbours, when he inquires if I want anything, I find myself asking for the other earring. Yes, I say. Diamond shaped. One side a mosaic, the other side brass plated. But he does not hear, or he stops listening when I start making my demands known. He is too busy rolling out a glossy piece of paper and nailing it to the wall of our house. It is a picture of him, arms folded, and wearing white in a background of orange and green. Both of him is beaming at me, waiting for me to say something. Our neighbours are beaming at me. My husband and I have been homonyms for so long. We have been living in different sentences, and this is our conjunction. This our begin-again. But I want the earring, I find myself repeating. I want the diamond shaped earring with a mosaic on it.

A wooden house lay nestled within the interiors of a shadowed mountain. The eaves of a corrugated tin roof dripped with water. Inside, a niche in a brick wall contained logs of burning wood. Preeti sat by the fire on a wooden board, rolling chappatis. She would toss the raw, flattened flour between the palms of her hands and then place it onto a black tava perched atop the flame. While it cooked, she would devote her attentions to yet another flattened flour cake. While putting it onto the tava, she would toss the replaced chappati into the swelling red embers beyond, and as it expanded with hot air, she reached into the red coals with her bare hands to retrieve it; it was blackened in circular patches. When she had first been introduced to this task by her mother, her skin had burned easily in red and blue patches. She had applied a paste of flour and water to conceal the patches- no woman wanted a delicate flower as a daughter in law! Even now, after years, her skin would still swell red at the treatment it was subjected to, but at least now, she had a more sophisticated version of the flour and water paste to apply- it was even waterproof.

Besides, cooking was a task she did not have to apply herself to; these recipes were as familiar to her as mother’s milk. Shallow fried potato wedges with coriander seeds, black soy cooked in a big black iron pot along with a watery vegetable soup of spinach leaves. Perhaps even chutney made from the herbs and leaves that grew in their garden of various steps. These days the family had guests over; that meant extra work for her because she was the one who worked and toiled all day long. She was used to early mornings and late nights, but she couldn’t help but begrudge the additional work, though she did her best to be hospitable. The two girls who were staying with them as part of a home-stay initiative of the nearby NGO were as quiet as mice; except for occasional rumbles and tumbles at night. Sometimes she would feel horrible for holding such antipathy towards them when they had done nothing wrong; they ate what was served to them, only asked for extra water. That was the day she had made jalebi’s for them as an evening snack.

About a year and half back, she had been pregnant with her first child. She had been married at about the same time too; she couldn’t remember; all the days blurred into one. She had heard how women worked even when they were heavily pregnant, but she hadn’t understood it until she too was heavily pregnant and had to climb trees and venture down slopes when her big stomach would scarce provide her a glimpse of her own toes, let alone the boulders in her path. She was given no break from her daily routine; she still had to cut grass and feed the cows and cook and clean and scrub pots and cut up vegetables-not counting the days when she carried loads on her head of mass exceeding her own; all while her husband made googly eyes at their son. All this a woman would do, and still be regarded as the weaker sex. Her mother had often told her that it was a man’s world, but were they so blind that they couldn’t see that a house could only stand when both sides pitched in? But then she reprimanded herself. Her husband was her pati parmeshwar; akin to her God, and everything that she was wont to do since she kicked that pot of rice over the threshold was in the name of her husband and his family’s welfare, her own needs came last, always.

A piece of cloth was wrapped around the middle finger of her left hand- she had cut it while scything grass. She massaged her wrists wearily. Sometimes she felt as if her wedding bangles were her shackles to this life; a beast of burden that broke their back and sweated and toiled all day only to get up the next day and realise that it hadn’t, in fact, been a dream. When she had been a girl, she dreamed of studying at Kumaun University. She was a bright child; she could have won a scholarship, she knew it. But what was the point of dredging up the past; it was nothing but a barb in her side now; an alternate future, a could-have-been. But ever since her home had been volunteered as a home-stay, her constant interactions with the young college students sprinkled salt into newly re-opened wounds. They had a life that she could only dream of- a dream that she had put to bed long ago. It was her brother who had always been sent off to school eagerly; she would be sent reluctantly because her brother and she were inseparable. Her father would tell people of the village proudly that his son was learning to read and write; the first in the family. He did not speak of his daughter; she would soon belong to a paraya ghar, another house, and therefore, he never really considered her his anyway.
She would come back from school to wash clothes- both her own and her brother’s and help her mother out with the cooking while her brother would run amok with his friends. Her brother was quite myopic, but sometimes pathos would impel him to rinse his mud splattered clothes with water before they were drubbed thoroughly by the women; and his father would laugh at him and shoo him away from “women’s work”. They were born to cook and clean and wash dishes, but you, son, he would say, you were born to do greater things. Do not let me catch you helping out the women ever again. This last sentence was uttered ominously.

Her son wailed, breaking her concentration. Her mother in law rushed to placate him with a cup of hot milk, and a sudden indignation choked her. Preeti only got to hold her son a few times in a day. She wanted to hold him more frequently, but where was the time? The only time she got off to herself was when she ate. Her son was so adorable, so love-worthy, with his drooping cheeks and sudden shy smiles whenever someone looked at him – even the way he would lift his shirt to reveal a rotund stomach, and rub it in a satisfied manner after a meal. Before she had had him, she had doubts about her lifestyle, but after her child was born, the maternal love that seized her was as unexpected as it was strong. Perhaps that’s why, she reflected wryly. Perhaps that’s why the son is encouraged to get the wife with child as soon as possible- it makes her more compliant.

Life was hard, but harder for a woman. The woman woke early and devoted her attention to the seamless running of the house, and the man was complimented on it. The woman prepared banquet- like feasts three times a day and the man would thrust his plate away if he felt more like drink than food. Heaven forbid she let out even a squeak of a complaint. Her brothers had beaten their wives enough number of times for her to be aware of what happened when men got unhappy along with alcohol in their systems. Surprisingly enough, she had never seen that side of them; to her they were her elder brothers, her loving and protective bhaiya’s, and she had no doubt that if she was on the receiving end of a beating, they would step in to protect her, like armed guards. Why was it, she thought wryly. Why was it that man behaved differently with wives and sisters? It was almost as if they differentiated the world of women into two categories; those who were their sisters, to be loved and protected, and those who were not, and therefore, fair game.

“Apple chutney?” she asked, reaching up to the mantelpiece and bringing down a steel bowl with maroon liquid jelly. She had spent an extra few hours working at it because her husband had felt like eating apple chutney. She had made it two days ago and he hadn’t tasted it yet. Never mind, she told herself resignedly. Never mind that she hadn’t a taste for apples. She had no doubt that the rapacious appetites of the girls would soon see an empty bowl. The way they licked their chops after a meal did gratify her, if ever so slightly.
The worst part of the situation was that she could see herself become as jaded and demanding as her mother-in-law. Her mother in law too had been a bahu once; her life too had revolved around the whims and fancies of Husband and Co. She knew how it had been, why could she not be more understanding? But perhaps that was the very reason why she was so inexorable in her demands – because she too had been in the same place; she had done it all, and so would her bahu when the time came. It was a vicious circle that would never end. And her son would see the women of the house work all day long and grow up with his own prejudices that were set in stone.

The elder women of the family had already started asking for another child- and she didn’t want one, but prayed nevertheless, that it wouldn’t be a daughter. What she could not live with was this: She could not introduce her daughter to the alternate uses of flour. She could not bring up her own daughter with hopes and ambitions that had been her own and then extinguish them by assurances that the correct path for her was one step behind her husband. To do that would be to die a second death. She blew into the firewood and the embers swelled red and emitted sparks into the air that burned bright fleetingly before being crushed by the smoke.
“More dal?” she asked. “More sabzi?” She reached out with a ladle of vegetables ready. But they both shook their head. Her mother in law, who was in the corridor, guffawed.
“I still have to teach her loads about cooking food. “She said. “Give them something to sweeten the taste in their mouth instead!”

So Preeti reached up again to the mantelpiece and brought down a steel box, easing off the lid using her nails; sprinkling the steel with flour dust. She picked out brown cubes of mithai, and placed it on each of their plates. “It is a special Kumauni sweet.” She said. “You won’t get it in the plains. “
After serving dinner to the guests and family, she got a few moments respite; she ate three chappatis with vegetables straight from the kadhai, folding the potatoes within the roti in a morsel, while the rest of the family, having finished their food, proceeded to stack up the used plates outside in the pouring rain. She held her son for a few moments as well before her husband picked him up and proceeded to carry him around, mistakenly assuming that he was distracting her from her eating. She clutched on to her son’s hand, shaking her head. But her husband felt generous today. Why was it that their generosity was always at conflict with the situation, she thought. But then, her mother-in-law entered the room, taking her grandchild from her son’s arms. Her hair was blacker than it had any right to be and her skin was brown as a walnut with earrings hanging from the top of her ear to her lobes. The grandchild welcomed his dadi’s capable hands- hands that had raised two hulks of sons and eased more than a hundred children into the world.

“My Golu, “she crooned at the child in her arms. “Mera laadla, my darling.” Golu wriggled in her arms and split his mouth into a smile, revealing two sharp incisors in an otherwise toothless jaw. Golu was the reward she had waited for all the long years of her life. She had been unable to devote much time to her own sons; they had been raised by her own mother-in-law. But to Golu she would be mother and grandmother both, she resolved. She placed Golu down on all fours on the woven reed mat next to his mother.
“Where is the turmeric milk?” She asked Preeti. Preeti passed her a cup of milk wordlessly, and Jaya tried to convince Golu to drink it. But he had already spied the plateful of cucumbers. He pointed at it with a little finger, and Jaya burst into a smile.
“Ise kakori chai ho; he only wants cucumbers!” she laughed. “Have milk first, and some roti, “she coaxed. “After that, then, we can eat cucumbers. “But Golu was adamant that he wanted a slice of cucumber that very minute, and so, Jaya picked up the thinnest slice and held it in front of Golu’s mouth. Golu bit into it delicately with a crunch, and then allowed Jaya to tip the cup of hot milk inside his mouth.

“I hope the next grandchild is as compliant as this little darling” she said in a conversational tone, tucking the child securely with a shawl as a cold wind slammed the window against the sill. It had been nearly a year since Golu had been weaned off the breast. But Preeti did not answer. Every time Jaya or some other elderly matriarch of the family brought up the topic, she would begin talking about the devil that Golu was, and how she wanted him to grow older before providing with a little brother or sister. Those were the same women who would bless her with polysyllabic platitudes regarding the birth of sons, and only sons. A friend of hers from the same village had given birth to twin daughters during the navratris; the time when the birth of daughters is auspicious because they are believed to carry the spirit of the Devi herself. But they had clucked like hens and clicked their tongues at the new mother’s misfortune. Then there was that time about two months after Golu’s birth, when a woman with salt and pepper hair had approached her and asked her when she was having her next child. The pains of childbirth had not been forgotten, and Preeti looked at her incredulously. “There isn’t going to be a next child” she said. Naturally, Jaya was not too happy. But her husband was relatively mild mannered and content enough with one son to carry on the lineage, and did not nag her about it too often.

Today was not one of those nights. There were families with three, four, five children, he told her. Having one more was hardly asking for the moon. She wearily tried to explain to him that having a child right now would not be great- for either her or the child. Her hand crept into the folds of her sari, to clutch a circular box. She still felt weak and weary sometimes. She thought: what does he know about the rigours of bringing a child into this world? All that he did do last time was to pat her hand awkwardly when she was having contractions, and then disappear around the corner and faint, when it was she who struggled for sixteen hours. And then there was the secret that she hugged to herself- the possibility of having another child was almost zero; Dr. Priya had told her quite sternly that she had narrow hips and another birth could kill her. She had insisted on being the harbinger of the news herself, but somehow, she had managed to convince her that this piece of news was something that only the concerned woman could convey. It had been over eighteen months since, and she had told no-one. She feared that once the news would break; her role as a womb with legs would be over. She would be worked to the ground, driven to the ground. Why would anyone need her then?

So she told her husband yet again that now was not the right time for the family. He grunted angrily, threw the covers of the bed at her, and walked out; stooping to avoid hitting his head on the casing of the door. She exhaled, watching his retreating back, her hand relinquishing hold over the object. She would have to placate him. She would think of how to placate him- but tomorrow. Right now, she would sleep.
Deep into the night, when a torrential downpour had cut all lines of electricity, the door of the room slammed against the wall, and Preeti woke with a start in utter darkness, clutching the blankets to herself. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out the outline of a figure lumbering inside the room. A triangular head, thick-set shoulders- it was her husband. She moved to call out to him, but then bit her lip. She must have made a small sound, because her husband stopped lumbering around and craned his head in her general direction. He had a bottle clutched in his hand. Suddenly, he only lunged at her, crushing her throat. The close proximity of his face revealed bloodshot eyes with dilated pupils.

She pushed him away, her heart growing cold, and her forehead growing clammy. He slapped her full across the face, jerking her face sharply to the side. The stinging told her that there would be a purple bruise on her face tomorrow. She tried to reason with him as the hand came towards her again. She clung onto his fist wordlessly, pleading with him to keep it quiet; their son lay in the other room, as did the parents. But in an inebriated fury, little can permeate through the brain; he smashed the bottle against a hard surface-Preeti felt thankful that he had not broken it on her own head- and brandished glass at her, threatening to cut her if she didn’t let go of his arm. But Preeti clung and wept and pleaded, putting her entire weight on his arm, so that he had no choice but to lower it. He made a sudden sound of fury, and threw the remnants of the glass bottle on the floor, shattering the air and threw himself against her.

Just before marriage, Preeti had paid a visit to the town in the valley along with many of her friends-varying between wed and unwed to being engaged, like her. As she was inspecting a stack of green bangles that had taken her fancy, her married friend, Kavya, drew her away silently while the rest of the gaggle were going gaga over earrings and hair-bands and clips. Wordlessly, she slipped a small circular box into the pocket of Preeti’s lilac cardigan. Preeti dug her hand into the pocket and pulled it out. It was a Lakme concealer for peach coloured skin.
“I got it for you last month, when I was in Delhi…” Kavya said. Preeti stared at it in incomprehension.
“Trust me, you’ll need it.” Kavya smiled at her, a smile that was the stretching of muscles in sallow skin. Preeti clutched at her wrist as Kavya made to turn away.
“Kavya, “she said. “Kavya, does Abhimanyu hit you?
Kavya pulled her arm away from Preeti gently. “Forgive me, I won’t be able to get you a wedding gift when you get married, I spent all my spare allowance on this,” she said. “When they see imprints of their nightly handiwork, it works them up even more. I would have got you a vase or a mixer, but I think this… “She trailed off.
But Preeti put the concealer back into Kavya’s hands, closing her fingers around it securely. However, far from being placated, Kavya threw her head back and laughed. “Abhimanyu and I were a love match, Preeti, “she said. “ All men hit their women; don’t be so naïve. This is how things have always been. I learnt the hard way. Now what have I got to show for it? A child of ra-“She stopped before completing the word. She smiled again, with an effort, as she saw the shocked expression on Preeti’s face.
“You’re right.” She said. “Yuvraj is a good man. But keep this anyway; in case you burn yourself, or get a pimple or something! We need you to look your best for the ceremony anyway.”
Preeti had made aloo paranthas and scrambled eggs in the morning to warm the chill of the rain that had crept into bones. No one dared to look at her face; for once she was glad that Golu was still sleeping, uncomprehending infant that he was. That morning, she had applied layers and layers of concealer on the dark purple bruise on her cheekbone, reducing it to a pink blush that anyone could discount to a healthy morning walk- and massaged a dot of pink lipstick on the other cheek, rendering it the same shade. Everyone ate steadily, using the paranthas to mop up the last bit of scrambled egg from their plates. Jaya finished first and waited for the rest to finish as well, stacking up their plates onto hers, one-by one. She patted Preeti’s cheek as she passed by to place the plates outside. “Pretty child,” she said nonchalantly, alluding to the colour in Preeti’s face.

After that, things seemed to fall back into their usual pattern. Preeti carried on with her usual days. Yuvraj went off to work; she walked down to the fields to cut grass for the cows. She would return to cook meals and wash dishes and clean the house, and finally, get some respite to herself in late afternoon, when the sun was turning cold and orange, like the yolk of an egg. She would cook dinner in the evenings for herself and the two girls, fill up their bottles of water, and then, after feeding the rest of the family, sleep in a cold and empty bed at night- for which she was grateful. Sometimes, the rustling of the blankets would inform her of her husband’s presence in deep night, other nights, when she was sure that he would not return, she brought Golu into the bed with her. One of the village belles who was rapidly ripening into maturity had started giving herself airs about a certain married man who was planning to get rid of his old, decrepit wife for her. Well, Preeti thought. Better you than I.

When the girls left, they presented her with a beautiful silk sari that they had bought from Almora for her. Jaya had been quite disgruntled about it, and therefore, Preeti kept it away, locked in a chest under her bed where it gathered dust. A month passed by when Preeti’s body finally confirmed what she had suspected for some time; a double edged whetstone, as it pacified Jaya immensely. Sweets were distributed in the village; Jaya could once again begin boasting of her daughter-in-law’s fecundity; barely two years into the marriage, and already expecting another child! Yuvraj began to haunt the bed again. The village belle that he had been courting surreptitiously was married off to a widower in the neighbouring village. Preeti did not expect that marriage to be a happy one; but then, what exactly was a happy marriage? She had recently come to know a group of women who were beaten so often that they deluded themselves into believing that a raised hand was a sign of their husband’s love.

But her piece of happy news did not mean that Preeti was given respite from her daily collection of back-breaking work. The exhaustion felt by her body began to manifest in her face; with each passing moon, her face grew waxy and waned. There was a puffiness about her ankles that was not a good sign. Her stomach grew big and heavy; bigger and heavier than it had been when she had been expecting Golu. Her countenance was that of a fruit laden stalk; the bigger the fruit grew, the thinner the stalk became, until it became a dry and papery wisp.

Her mother visited, and during her stay, prescribed a variety of herbal teas when she saw her daughter’s pallor. Not for a minute did she consider the alternative; that of rest and relaxation. Preeti’s mother had worked throughout her own pregnancies, once, right up till the time her water broke- when she was in the fields tending to the cattle. But Preeti did try to tell her mother the truth in the few moments that they could snatch together; for she was obviously not the first woman whose body did not comply for more than one swelling. There was the afternoon when Jaya had generously offered to take upon Preeti’s duties for the rest of the day, so mother and daughter could have some time together. Preeti’s mother, a born opportunist, decided to use the time to massage oil into her daughter’s head- to make the hair silky and lustrous.

“How long was it since you last oiled your hair?” Her mother exclaimed, rubbing her scalp with apricot oil; a specialised product from that region. She seemed more than willing to keep up a steady stream of chatter regarding cosmetics and beautification. But every time Preeti brought up the topic of the possibility of an abortion, her mother grew silent for a long time, so silent that only her breathing could be heard, so silent, that Preeti was not sure if she had even heard her words, the movement of the fingers on Preeti’s scalp relentless and unfaltering. But then, you cannot ask a rock to be soft. You cannot ask a tree to stop growing upright. You cannot ask a woman who has gauged her life by the number of children she has borne to provide advice on the possibility of never having children again, because then, what sort of life would she imagine? So this visit too, came and went, without bearing any fruit.

But something unexpected began to happen when Preeti’s stomach began to distend-something that hadn’t even happened when she was expecting Golu. The apple chutney that Preeti would make began to be consumed by Yuvraj regularly. Once, Preeti bent with difficulty to serve Jaya- it was an assortment of potatoes and bitter gourd; a vegetable that Jaya considered Preeti’s waterloo. Barely a bite had she taken when she began to praise the food to high heavens. “This is one of the best karela sabzi that I have ever had.” Jaya declared.
So things seemed as if they were turning around. One night, a month before the date of delivery, Preeti was at the stove making that very karela sabzi. One moment she was standing, a hand on her swollen stomach, and the other stirring the pan with a spoon, and the next moment she was on the ground in a dead faint, a cluster of half-cooked bitter gourd and raw potatoes tumbled next to her. The howling gusts of wind covered up the sound of her body hitting the floor, but Jaya looked up when the door slammed, and there was Preeti, on the ground, with a puddle of water around her legs. Her pulse was weak, and her skin was the colour of paper, and somehow, someone managed to call a doctor who worked at the nearby NGO. Dr. Priya, who had been working late at the ward, arrived with an army of reinforcements. She took one look at Preeti and the puddle of water around her legs, turned white, and barked sharp orders for hot water and towels to be brought immediately, while Jaya eased a groggy Preeti into a sitting position. She was barely conscious -it seemed that the contractions had begun. Preeti’s body had no longer been able to support the child and had broken down. It was a wonder that she had managed to hold out for so long, the doctor said. And as they battled to bring the child into the world, the sky turned from black to purple and then streaked with yellow- and Dr. Priya told the family the secret that Preeti had been hugging to herself for eighteen months.

The sun was a blood red circle in the sky when the child finally entered the world; two children; twin boys, trumpeting their arrival with angry cries. “She is blessed.” Jaya said tearfully, as she held her twin grandsons for the first time, tears streaming down her face. They were pink and ugly, as babies are wont to be, but to Jaya, they were the most beautiful children in the world.
“Preeti, come hold your children, “she said. She had one on each arm as she turned to look at her daughter in law.
“Preeti?”
But Preeti could not answer, nor could not be the judge of her own fortune. She was too far gone to be revived; her body had been inadequate to support one child, let alone two, and the price of this birth was her life. And as the nurses carried away the bloodstained sheets, one of them closed Preeti’s eyes in a gesture that looked as if they were checking her temperature.
Her body was cremated and the ashes were poured into a clay pot covered with foil. Her belongings were put aside. A portrait of her was framed, garlanded and put up in the house- and she began to be upheld as the paragon of all women. And since Jaya refused to wear a dead woman’s sari, the sari that Preeti had received as a gift; a sari that had cost a full five thousand rupees, the sari that Preeti had never worn, too was cast away.

In time, Yuvraj became the very widower who was considered an eligible match for young women with a finger pointed at their backs, and eventually, he married one, treating her with as much contempt as he felt such a woman deserved, regardless of his own philandering. She bore him more sons in addition to the three that Preeti had given him, and he beat her often as well- he was encouraged by the men in the village, and by Jaya herself. His new wife took it all quietly; and slowly, her body hardened and grew mottled with bruises. She began taking to wearing full sleeved kurta’s; and even when wearing a sari, would drape a shawl carefully around her shoulders. One day, after being slapped by Jaya, she was rummaging, dry eyed, through the cupboard of her clothes. She found a small circular box with a scratched label. It had a peach coloured paste inside it. When she tried the paste on her arm, the bruise on her skin disappeared. She was glad. She could start wearing half-sleeved kurta’s again.

I found myself first taking breath when people started to clamour all around me. That was also my first waking moment. It was only when people started responding to my form that I finally acquired life; it was the final ingredient to the mud and the coconut fibres (which I would have much rather preferred on my poor, balding head, rather than forming my flesh) and the bamboo that formed my bones. Skeletally speaking, I would be an unimpressive structure, I think. Just a few broken pieces of bamboo holding my limbs together; one responsible for the awkward tilt of my head. They would be more like knitting needles holding pieces of wool together.

No one likes visiting their infancy. Maybe that is why memories are so fleeting; we barely remember our childhood because we don’t want to remember what fools we all used to be. In my case, I wouldn’t really like to imagine that I was once dry mud- hard to do when someone keeps trying to “fix” you with the occasional smoothening of water over your limbs, which would be like a caress if I didn’t shrink under it. They say that that’s how humans were created; that’s how my own creators were created, out of unformed clay, and then God whispered into their ears and ran his hands gently over their bodies and infused a soul into them. I just wonder somehow if gods aren’t just a little prejudiced. They created their own world with crustaceans, and amphibians and the cats and everything else, but ultimately, at the top of the food chain was someone that they created in their own image. Perhaps to reinforce the idea who was the true ruler of them all. A sort of vicious circle, it would seem. Good for me, because if my gods choose to make a whole line of me, I would be the first man. I would be Adam. And they could touch my fingertips and breathe life into me so that I could move, and then when they created the rest of the world, I would be the God. A real, vicious circle.

I don’t remember much when I was just mud and bamboo. I can tell you how it feels, alright. Feeling something became a variable that I could play with only once I was done being created; my body was done being formed. From the mud splattered feet, the colour of sienna with a reddish tint applied carelessly like poorly applied alta, and then looking at my own burnt skin, the colour of a walnut, I can deduce that I was stomped upon on liquid form more than a few times. There are other brick like rounds piled just behind me; I can see it with the corner of my vision- no wait. Feeling would be a better word; I can somehow feel what will become part of my flesh, like a magnetic attraction. Pity. I like how I look right now, all unformed and frozen and bubbly. I can feel hands trying to smoothen the curve of my shoulders; one on the lower back. I watch a bamboo-bone being pulled out of my knee with disinterest, and then plunged back, once, twice, creating to holes that crustaceans can bury themselves in. Perhaps in a few couple of hundred years when the world is run over by water, and I somehow, keep my form, I’ll look fossilized, with seaweed forming my hair, and crabs coming out of my insides. I do wish I had more hair, even if it looked like a balding spot. At least it’ll prove that I wasn’t born bald, that I did have some hair after all.

I’m sitting like someone looking at the sun for the first time, but that concrete water-dripping flyover blocks my view. One hand is behind me, and one hand extends in front of me; there are about three gods clustered in front trying to form my appendages. They extend all five, and then remove a lump of my flesh as determinedly and ruthlessly as Shylock, and start again. There are a cluster of people all around me, every direction, some are just watching, and they have been watching me take form since my very beginning. I feel annoyed. Why can’t they just go away? I feel that they know more about me that I do myself; they know me before I was, before my “I” even existed. I’d really like some time to deal with myself right now. One of the gods, a small, petite one, pushes away a few, and she’s my favourite. The Compassionate One, I imagine. God of kindness and compassion. Oh, but if they could only touch my fingertips already! I’d so like to point at her instead of the wailing fleet of vehicles which I am supposed to be looking at like I am falling in love with them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The process of manicure and refinement continues for a while. My feet are formed; one girl extends a calf and a similar curve is impressed on my own beautiful foot as well. I liked the undulating curves on my leg. Someone is trying to make my head into an oval. Another grips my torso. . There is a hush then, and people begin to move away slowly from me, their hands outstretched, mud still forming on their hands, which they wipe callously, on their shirts, in buckets of water, and even on me, to my outrage. Imagine butchering someone and then wiping their entrails on the living body itself! My outstretched arm has one finger extending towards the traffic. I decide that I don’t like this very much. I wish that I could point this finger at them instead. I don’t think I like being alive. I thought I would be able to move, but I can’t. I’m rooted. I don’t want to be.

“She’s ready.” They say in a hushed whisper, and an explosion of thunder begins to reverberate around me. I am more than a little surprised. Wait. They’re happy because they created me? What about me now? Am I just supposed to be left here, to fend for my own self? What about the dogs who will come at night- and I know they will- and lick my shoulders, the steamroller than will not think twice before crunching over me, the car that will speed past, the one I will point at, sending a wave of dirty water to drench me? They don’t seem very concerned about me now. Two already left, bored before I was made. My outstretched finger begins to crumble as a line seeps through it like a ripple of water, like a fracture line in an earthen pot. With a sigh, that finger collapses, making my hand a clenched fist. Just as well. It’s more appropriate to my mood.

Lone Star and Thunderheart

 

On a superficial level, the protagonists of both Lone Star and Thunderheart are cops and are investigating a murder. Both films are categorised as Western mystery films and refer to important events in history significant to both peoples-the Alamo and the Wounded Knee Massacre.  Both protagonists are attracted to schoolteachers of a different heritage. But when broken down into their “cardinal traits”, in context of the ideas that the films were trying to convey, the similitude between the two runs far deeper than surface details. The connections emerge through ideas and also in terms of the questions they evoke in one’s mind.

One of the links was the concept of land, the question of its ownership and the subsequent conflicts that follow. In Lone Star, it is the people of Mexican descent who are the oppressed ones, although the animosity towards them is slightly less overt compared to Thunderheart-where racial slurs hurled at Native Americans is a daily dose of life. One question that emerged: In conquest, is it fair for the conquered to forfeit their land, in context of the fact that there is always an ever present conflict between the two peoples?

In Thunderheart, there is a quote that speaks for the question, “I feel for them, I really do. They’re a proud people. But they’re also a conquered people”.  In Lone Star, this animosity emerges in various ways- the scene of the American lady vociferously declaring to a group of teachers and parents that Pilar, the school teacher of Mexican descent is teaching wrong history. Sherriff Charlie Wade discriminates against non-whites on a regular basis and also turns out to be responsible for disappearances of prospective illegal Mexican immigrants, especially when they attempt to cross the border.

This links to the broader theme of oppression and conflict, leading to another question: through continuous oppression, does the deprivation of land lead to loss of reserves of memory? It could be a possible explanation for the existing conflict- the attempt to change history. As Maggie Eagle Bear, a Native American schoolteacher and political activist (Thunderheart) says, “My family’s been involved ever since Columbus landed”. And after all, Texas used to be a part of Mexico.

 

In both films, the process of interior decolonization is evident; it has affected ethnic minority families and groups that until now have possessed reserves of memory, but little or no historical capital 1 .Contemporary Navajo poet Luci Taphonso insists that land that appears arid and forlorn to the newcomer is full of stories that hold the spirits of people, those who live here today and those who lived centuries and worlds ago. Each cliff formation, each watering hole, every boulder or ancient tree has a story that roots it to the landscape and in the people’s psyche.  One could say that loss of land results in a loss of a sense of belongingness which results in a blow to the collective memory of the people, and consequently, leading to a loss of identity2.  Hence the struggle to hold on to it- again, seen in both films, although to different degrees.  For us, our land isour memory; containing lieux de memoire-important because they act as a replacement for our past; a true memory that has ceased to exist3.

 

The theme of conflict is also internal. Sam Deeds has never identified with his father but through a murder investigation; he gradually understands that Sherriff Buddy Deeds was more than just an absentee father and a cheating husband. Thus, the question of identity and family comes into play again, albeit in a different context. In the case of Thunderheart, it leans more towards Ray Levoi denying the identity of his father- who was Native American. He is hostile towards them partly because of it being a “taught” attitude, and also because it is a conflict of blood within him. Both the films depict a gradual “coming-to-terms” that culminates in a feeling of kinship in terms of parents and family, and also perhaps, the people around them.

The concept of different times stands out as well; Lone Star contrasts the present with the past through flashbacks, and Thunderheart contrasts the present with the future; in the form of visions; albeit in a metaphorical way, since visions are never what they seem to be.  The visions could also be construed as a glimpse into the past, since the Native American tribal elders consider Ray to be the reincarnation of a legendary hero Thunderheart, born again to save his people from troubled times. It is mentioned that Thunderheart was killed while heading for the Stronghold, and Ray dreams a vision of himself in history being shot in the back while heading to the same. He also experiences flashbacks to his childhood, where he is torn out of the arms of a Native American man. These are all memories that he has submerged to the point of denying the identity of his father, but now they resurface. He barges in onto Grandpa Sam Reaches, asking him vehemently, “What’s happening to me?” To answer the question, he is being reminded of the other part of his identity. Sam Deeds too, has memories of only one side of his father; the other side is the one that he uncovers through the film.

Thus, what we remember and how we remember are threads that run through both films. Such questions are important, not just in terms of personal memories, but also on the concept of “we”. Who is “we?” This is yet another question that both the films attempt to answer. In Lone Star, it is Sam Deed’s recognition that the oppressed are still people, and therefore, fall under the generic term of “we.” In Thunderheart, Ray experiences the same recognition, but it has far more of a personal touch. And finally, an umbrella question that resounds through all aspects of both Lone Star and Thunderheart: What happens when you dig up the past? What happens when one visits sites of memory left untouched?

(999 words of content)

References

1. Pierre Nora, Between Memory and History (California, University of California Press, 1989)

2. Luci Tapahonso, Blue Horses Rush in (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1997)

3. Nora, Between Memory and History

Half-Lives

 

                   I met Aryan* when I was fifteen. I would like to say that it was love at first sight, but if I have to be factual about it, Aryan thought I was obnoxious, and he hated me. Well. He was attracted to my impossibly handsome features (laughs). I started interacting with him through common friends; you know how the social circles intersect in Delhi; structures like Venn diagrams. They show all possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets, and even though Aryan went out of his way to avoid me, mathematics brought us together. Almost makes me regret that I dumped it in eleventh.  We realized we had more in common after about twelve tequila shots – isn’t that the beginning of all great love stories in Hollywood? Well, one thing led to another and here we are.  (Pause) Excuse me, he apologizes, and then proceeds to bury his nose into a handkerchief. I look away politely, and after a few minutes, he is himself again, with his sinus area slightly reddened. I’m sorry, he apologizes; he has a cold. So I write it down dutifully: Karan* has a cold. We both know its camouflage for that catch in his throat.

                  Well, where is Aryan now? He isn’t entirely sure. It is really hard to keep track of someone who is continents away, and right now they have a spring break. Many of Aryan’s friends are heading to Cancun, Mexico, and Karan expects Aryan to be accompanying them. A light enters his eyes and his mouth begins to tilt upwards in almost motherly pride. Aryan is studying English Literature in Oxford, and Karan was expected to join him; right up till his father ripped his acceptance letter into half- an action mirrored on Karan’s heart. You see, although nothing was acknowledged, apocryphal stories had begun to circulate, but to Karan and Aryan, it was irrelevant. They were both incapable of the conception that their joy was a sin.

                 Jacques Derrida asks:  Is love the love of someone or the love of somethingSuppose I love someonedo I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are? I love you. … I love you because you are you? Or do I love your qualitiesyour beautyand your intelligence?

                 For if it is the qualities that one loves, to be fastidious about the gender one finds it in is to discount the value of the qualities themselves. A person is viewed as a collection of qualities, and love is then given to the most sought-after combination. But then, if a person is not his qualities, what is he? A person is how his mind operates, and qualities are a manifestation of the mechanism of the mind. So how does the discrepancy between the love given to the “you” and love given to “qualities” arise?  

                I come from a very orthodox background. Arranged marriages are the norm; in fact, dad has already got a girl in mind for me, some distant family friend who I met when I was five. But Aryan is someone who I can talk to about anything. The kind of person he is, me loving him was inevitable. Our love for literature, our common thought. I don’t know if you can call it love or a deep connection and understanding between two people, who just happen to be of the same gender. I doubt whether the family would have got so riled up if Aryan was Aadya instead. 

                Plato said that according to Greek mythology, human beings were initially two headed with double the number of arms and legs. But Zeus feared their power, so he split them in half, condemning them to spend their lives searching for their other halves.  And it is assumed that the other half of a male is always a female, and vice versa- and this thought is used to fuel an “anti-immoral” propaganda. But individualism recognizes that a person cannot run another’s life, nor should he allow anyone else to run his own. Just like a single meal can be shared among people, but cannot be digested by a collective stomach, the same way an idea can be propagated, but cannot be imbibed by a collective brain.

              If even a matter of personal choice can be opposed by society to such an extent that it escalates to brutal violence is not just shocking for the community involved, but also raises questions about people in general; people who dare to be different. If society can feel outrage over something as paltry as sexual orientation, what is the barrier that separating brutal violence from anyone with a voice?

              Do you think you’ll see Aryan again, I ask Karan frankly. He pauses for a long while before he answers. I don’t know, he says. Maybe, when he comes back for his holidays.  What if you never see him again? He has a bittersweet smile on his face as he speaks. It’ll be an imagined life, he says.  

 

 Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code dates back to 1860 and criminalises sexual activities “against the order of nature”.

 

 

But half of an apple is still an apple.

                                                                                        

 

 

 

 

 

*names have been changed as per request

 

 

 

 

 

                 

 

           

Riding in a bus is similar to being churned in a stomach. There is secretion of bodily fluids, and everyone keeps touching each other.

So there I stood, ruminating about my life and how I had ended up in this situation. I was wedged tightly between a metal pole and the brightly draped posterior of a lady that extended into even the peripheries of my vision. The gajra in her hair was uncanny in context that it was in two places at once; entangled in her oiled hair, and squashed against my nose. On a closer inspection, the bright pink sari had a gold edging to it; too lurid for the morning; in fact, when I turned to look outside the rattling, plastic window, the fleeting glimpse of greenery that blurred into my vision seemed to be unembellished in comparison.

To be philosophical about it, a bus is one of those rare forms of vehicular transport where people of all caste and creed are brought together, and compelled to co-operate- figuratively speaking, because I have seen people holding on to the leather covered seat for dear life while someone pulls at their other end in a rather determined sort of manner. Today the crowd was a little more daunting than usual. Every single shuddering, gasping halt of the bus was accompanied by about ten people bludgeoning their way through; arranging themselves in strategic manners around the occupied seats, reminiscent of the various vyuhhs in the Battle of Kurukshetra. Furtive glances were daggered; handbags exchanged hands frequently, and a one degree shift in a seat could create seismic vibrations felt throughout the bus; stout figures in saris and petite ones in kurtas threatened to converge upon the unsuspecting individual.

The bus conductor was a capricious soul with red mehendi coloured streaks running through his hair, and a dappling of grey on his otherwise jet-black sideburns. He clutched his satchel and disappeared for a few moments barely fifteen minutes after I had squeezed myself into a corner – trying to blend in with the dull steel and the posters that were constrained within the bounds of decency by a fraction of an inch of skin and sinew. He returned in moments with a plastic bag wrapped around a box rather haphazardly; a lady with burnished copper skin close at his heels. Blended with the brouhaha of rush hour, she was incoherent, but obviously agitated; streams of histrionic Kannada emerging from her Goddess like mouth. The rudraksha beads around her neck were the skulls of her rapacious appetite, the jasmine flowers in her hair trembled with intensity and steam emanated from her skin.

“Is that a rolling pin?” I exclaimed to no one in particular, but I received answering nods from women all over the bus; those in my vicinity, who had heard me. Some were nodding in acquiescence, self righteous expressions; eyes still on the soap opera that was an impediment to effortless traffic. Meanwhile, the lady in question had kohl rimmed eyes –eyes that seemed to be a physical manifestation of her internal fire being stoked.

“Oh yes. “ An old woman spoke; whose age had created running wrinkles through her face that threatened to converge at a single point; her mouth, giving her rather unfortunate resemblance to a lemon.

“What did he do?” I asked in a breathless whisper.

“The question, my dear, is what he did not do. It would be a shorter list.” The lady swelled in a feeling of importance as she edged closer to me with visible physical effort.

“But what did he do?”

The lady cocked an ear and listened intently for a few seconds.

“Didn’t finish his Sāmbhar-rice, I think. I tell you, it’s a wonder that woman sticks with him. If I were her, I would have used that rolling pin as an actual weapon, rather than just brandish it about. One phatak “: she paused to exhibit a swing with her frail arms; a gesture that would have aroused the admiration of a professional baseball player as well as an executioner of a guillotine. She let her sentence trail away into an ominous rattling as she cut an arc through the empty air above my head, and the heads of five others as we looked to gravity for cover. A second slower and we would all have been strutting around looking like Marie Antoinette or convincing impersonators of a dog with an ear infection.

A lady in a neon green sari alighted onto the bus. She was slightly rotund and shone out like a traffic light. Even the conductor who wasn’t interested in anything but the give and take of the tickets stood stock still in his tracks; riveted by the sight of the green butterfly that had wandered, perhaps mistakenly, into Hell itself. As we stared at her, she dropped her pallu coyly over her head. In retrospect, it was one of the better examples of biological regression that I have seen; this slight adjustment in garment caused her to resemble a caterpillar about to burst forth from its cocoon, showering all in its luminescent glory. I blinked, and she changed, looking like a brightly lit mummified Frodo.

The bus then proceeded to throw itself into lurches. We were all airborne for brief periods of time: I was flying, though in reality it meant that the bus was teetering dangerously on one wheel. Space, time and physics hung somewhere near the garland of marigold flowers on the windshield- they were rapidly shedding petals and shriveling into black ash. I saw my life pass in front of my eyes, as well as a distinct feeling of regret that I had not devoured the scrumptious Chettinadu chicken of yesterday. I mean, I could think of better ways to die than with the taste of spices of the subcontinent in my mouth. And as the bus screeched painfully into a sharp turn, I saw my stop in a distance; a blur of red and white dots dancing in my vision.

As hardened survivors, one thing that we all have learnt over time is never, ever, forswear even an inch of space if it is rooted in generosity and isn’t in quid pro quo. Despite attempts to move, the group of people I faced were faceless; they were like dough, like fevicol, and they refused to budge an inch; forming a glutinous mass where entanglement was directly proportional to the energy of the attempt.

“Excuse me.” I said softly. No reply.

I tried again. “Excuse me, can I please…?” I was rewarded by a disdainful look by a man with a handlebar moustache. Do you think, his gaze was saying, do you think that a bus is an area of Victorian manners and genteel personas? Nay, girl, it is the reason humans have a primal side. He smirked slightly; an upward tilt to his mouth.

Damn you. I threw myself forward, bag in one hand, and the other outstretched- like superman. However, unlike superman, I didn’t fly, but sank disproportionately, as if my body was weighted with unequal iron blocks; and received, as a way of thanks, curses that would make Satan himself shrivel up and tremble in fear. Immediate collapse was avoided because body and soul were thrust forward with an iron will made tangible- I wanted more accomplishments in life before being trampled all the way to Yamalok; no one ever experienced the joys of heaven by dying an ignoble death of being squashed under feet caked with mud and tar. Just imagine what I would say to St. Peter before the golden gates of Swarga to explain a footprint on my face? Oh no, sir, heh, that’s actually a heroic deed. I had a tendency to be so self-sacrificing that people often mistook me as… uhm… a doormat.

Picture therefore: a pale female with an expression of abject determination, launching herself yet again, over a mass of heads, handbags and leather seats. I was swimming through the English Channel that was the aisle of the bus and hands reached out to clasp my ankles- like gnats; those tiny midges like insects that decorate your skin beautifully with dappling of pinpricks. I was hoisted none too gently ; like those yesteryear rockstars, except there was a distinct lack of hero-worship here- and deposited outside the bus as neatly as a sack of flour. I stumbled to my feet in a flurry of dust and pebbles, and the bus sped off, belching hiccups of foul smoke into all directions. My bag was tossed to me as an afterthought through one of the windows.

I brushed myself off grimly, promising myself that I had learnt my lesson. Next time I would carry a hatchet. Ahimsa could rot in hell where a bus was concerned.