I have thought of redoing
my hair many times. Imagined
pretty curls, bought a curler that
travels with me to places and
comes back in the suitcase, unused.
Or that smart-look, snappy boy-cut
That bold and edgy women don with
spunk. At the very least make it
shoulder length and leave it
open sometimes? I hear friends whisper,
“Come on, try it, it’ll grow back.”
I know this is true because when
my hairstylist — the husband — cut it
shorter than I had requested, it actually grew back.
On YouTube, I ceaselessly watch videos to learn
the art of a French roll and the French braid. I vow
to practice and get them right. Then I
go to the mirror and pull my hair into
a plain braid. Exactly like
my mother has done forever. There is
Wisdom in knowing a single plait tied
Well can save you from many bad
Kerala has scarcely had a more challenging festival season than the recent Eid and Onam that went by. Festivals, for all their loaded moral and religious bearings, are also occasions for feasting together. Watching the 2017 Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa (dir. Kiran Narayanan) in the backdrop of the devastating floods in Kerala, I learned, with sobering appreciation, not only how food integrates people but also how it binds Keralites across communities with a peculiar endurance, one that only the tongue’s archived discretion can inspire.
The film begins with the redoubtable Ummi Abdulla, the diva of Malabar cuisine, presenting a radio show. Abdulla shares how biryani arrived in India with the Persians and was refined in the royal kitchens of the Mughals before travelling to Kerala, where it changed its form based on the “land, weather conditions and nature” of the locals. In that summation is a compendium of the history of Malabar cuisine – a confluence of cooking styles including European to Arabian and Persian besides, of course, Indian.
The film’s fantasy trope of angels-helping-humans shifts the scene from the imagined, dreamy heaven to the lush heaven-on-earth, where the main story unfolds. The camera moves with the nonchalance of being in a place – a fictional village about 50 kilometers from Kozhikode – where every shot is bound to hold the eyes captive.
The central attraction of the village is a 200-year-old mosque, famous not so much for its religious services or even the multi-gemstone studded walking stick of its founder preserved as an exhibit in the mosque as for its Sunday biryani program. Cutting across caste, class and religion, biryani lovers throng the mosque every Sunday. When a TV reporter comes to the village to do a story on the weekly feast, the first person he interviews is the elderly Krishnan, who prides his position as the president of the “2,000-year-old” Bhadrakali temple as much as he gloats over the fact that he sat on the front row of the first edition of the biryani program, hosted by Hajiyar, the mosque priest and his (now dead) wife, in 1998.
As depicted in the film, the queues formed diligently for the free biryani – one each for men and women – held for me a mirror to the dignity and grace of the people of Kerala. Everyone waits for their turn patiently, and social position accords no special status to anyone. This is the same grace the Malayalees have displayed in the wake of the unimaginable calamity of the recent deluge. From cabinet ministers to district collectors, and police officers to ordinary millennials and seniors alike, Keralites displayed a spirit of cooperation that stood out when the force of water swallowed everything else around them. Images of a young girl carrying her pet dog on her head as she wades through waist-deep water, of poor villagers at the district collector’s office to return their eagerly-awaited meagre pension and of ministers carrying sacks of relief material on their shoulders won’t escape our memory soon. More so because, while stories of human endurance in crises involve ordinary folks are common, it is rare in the Indian context to see officials and legislators stepping in to respond to life-threatening situations.
Even besides the workplace and the biryani queue, the neighbours – Muslims, Christians and Hindus – freely intermingle on a social level, visiting each other’s houses, having tea and food together. God is a common point of reference in their conversations. Communal harmony is not a clichéd, feel-good cinematic flower vase here because it is precisely not that in the social milieu it draws from. This bond is real and sincere, as has been demonstrated by the temples and churches that opened their doors for namaaz in the wake of the recent floods.
The Malabar biryani then becomes a metaphor for this smooth amalgamation, combining as it does, according to the mosque priest, 35 different ingredients. When mixed in the right proportion, these create an aroma that rises “straight to the heaven.” Similar to the harmonizing of the spices in the biryani is the social mixing of the neighbours. Hassan, an aspirational tailor, works in Mariyama Memorial Tailoring Shop owned by a Christian and writes screenplays at work; his current work in progress is a modern-day story of Mahabharata’s king Pandu.
But despite the egalitarianism and secularity, the biryani queue is also where strains of tension first become visible. The camera focuses on Miss Tara, a middle-aged widow who quickly becomes the object of ogling and slander from the men’s line. Her crime? Not displaying grief on her husband’s death in the Gulf two years earlier.
The perils of disinformation
The biryani program comes to an abrupt halt with due to certain circumstances. To cope with the drab Sundays, no-good youngsters like Paul, the tailoring shop owner’s adopted son, look forward to such activities as visiting Tara’s house on the pretext of delivering her blouse. At a village meeting chaired by Hajiyar and Krishnan, Tara volunteers to cook the Sunday biryani. But on her first scheduled Sunday, she ends up delivering a premature baby girl instead, sparking a wildfire of scandalous gossip through the village. Speculations on the baby’s father bring everyone into its ambit – from the impotent tailor master to Hajiyar.
The viral acceptance of rumour as truth that follows brings to the mind the vicious disinformation campaign launched with the aim of forestalling aid contributions for the recent flood victims.
Tara is defamed as a fallen woman, publicly called a whore and barred from participating in the biryani program. But Tara, like Kerala, stands her ground in the face of all the aspersions. Like Kerala, too, she does not let herself slide into victimhood, treating herself to a sumptuous home cooked meal instead.
Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is a feminist film in several ways. The guest appearance of Ummi Abdulla featuring on an FM channel run entirely by women, the heavenly angel deciding to help Tara, the exposing of patriarchal hypocrisy—all point to that. Contrasting with that clear slant from director Kiran Narayanan is the easy geniality with which the villagers from different religions and social classes intermingle.
The film’s finale emerges from Tara revealing the name of her child’s father to the villagers and stepping forward to cook the Sunday biryani with the help of fellow villagers. After overcoming his initial shame-induced denial, the father of Tara’s illegitimate child finally owns up his responsibility. The village is able to bring the biryani program back without outside help, much like Keralites have done to rebuild their state in the aftermath of the floods.
It would be imprudent to simply draw the parallels without also considering the man-made causes that contributed in large measure to the recent flooding. That said, the soul of Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is the wisdom it offers – living in harmony, assuming responsibility in full and a staunch refusal to negotiate with harmful agents – both as a fable and a doctrine to live by.
For, indeed, biryani can be a way of life if not a religion in itself.
Riding a bus had become foreign to me. As foreign as waking up to noiseless mornings that could put nights to shame with their stark absence of light. Since migrating to Canada seven years ago, I had let myself happily slide into the snug comfort of a personal car to get around.
One winter morning, that ceased to be the case.
In the middle of December 2017, I found myself waiting for a public bus on a steel-grey dawn with mountains of stiff white snow all around me. A change in the work life of my husband, with whom I used to share a car to get to the workplace, had just shaken up my daily commute. This meant a not-so-minor adjustment, coming as it did during the country’s unforgiving, bordering on dangerous, winter. The bus stop nearest to our house was a good 8-minute walk, not the best idea in a period visited by frequent and violent snow squalls. The next best alternative was to leave early in the morning, an hour and a half before my usual schedule, so that my husband could give me a lift to the bus stop — the first of the two I needed to wait at — before proceeding to his place of work in a different city.
Standing there in the pitch dark of a sunless morning, an arctic chill cutting through my skin like a hundred hypodermic needles, I wondered if I’d be able to bear the regimen for too long.
My interest in the ethics of public transit, especially as it related to reducing carbon footprint, wouldn’t merely be put to test but seriously challenged as I became a daily bus passenger amid temperatures plummeting to -20C and below. At each of the two bus stops, I would have to wait anywhere between two-nine minutes. Then, after a half-hour bus trip, I would have to walk for another six minutes to reach my office from the bus stop closest to it. Enough time for a skin-numbing life lesson on the power of a single minute.
The Insider’s View
Inside the bus, secrets waited. There was warmth and ease, and not only because of the controlled temperature settings. The first time the bus turned a right-hand corner instead of moving straight on the road that led to my workplace, I sighed in frustration. This easily meant a longer commute than I was used to. Within moments, we were deep inside the sprawling campus of a university. A new world — of gothic buildings nestled in woods, winding roads and sidewalks and a river bisecting the eastern part of the campus — kept extending before my eyes like a poetic dream. Even the heaps of snow that blanketed most of the landscape couldn’t mask the beauty and magnificence of it.
Over the course of the long winter I would look forward to this — the most twisted — part of my commute the most. Tall trees across the campus, rendered nameless by their wintry bareness, framed the building structures with their filigreed branches. Looking at them I forgot clock-controlled time. For an instant, I would imagine what the place would look like in spring or summer. Yet, I was in no hurry for that visual to manifest. What lay before me sufficed, spectacularly.
Immigrants are notorious creatures of existential comparison. Riding the public transit inevitably brought back for me memories of commuting to college in Delhi by DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses, necessary yet dreaded. The three years of my undergraduate programme required me to board a crowded bus from Kalkaji to Netaji Nagar, always late and often tilted with the weight of the humans it carried. My experiences as a female passenger in those three years made me vow never to ride a DTC bus once I had a job. I kept this promise to myself. From day one of earning a salary, I switched to Delhi’s ubiquitous paid personal transport — the autorickshaw. This was and felt like, a luxury, considering my paltry income. It also increased my respect for my mother, who had to rely on DTC buses for the entirety of her working life, travelling from south Delhi to North Campus. In Delhi’s hyper materialist environment, anything that cost you more indicated your ascension on the status-symbol ladder. If you could afford an auto, you would never look back at a DTC bus again.
Two decades later, as I ride the public transit at the other end of the world, the democracy of the act intrigues me. Beyond the obvious inclusiveness of wheelchair and infant stroller access, the bus here is what the suit-and-tie executive rides alongside the homeless bum with his overflowing cart of broken belongings. Its egalitarianism has liberated me from any stigma I might have been carrying for the public bus in my subconscious.
A Public Inn
Some of the closest friendships my mother enjoyed were forged in the public bus. As an introvert, I listened with envy to her stories of the in-bus sisterhood of working women. They shared everything, from in-law problems to kids’ issues, health worries and edible treats. Not having inherited her propensity for bonding with strangers, I have found books to be my most trusted bus buddies. Reading a book inside a moving bus is exhilarating. From Delhi to eastern India to rural China, the geographies I have traversed through the pages of the books I read seemed to take on a more active, pulsating life with the bus’s jerks and swerves. As I read, the distractions around me — the university students’ banter, the bus driver’s announcements, the view outside the window — taught me how the world of a daily passenger is both solitary and communal. The silent alliances formed are no less real than verbal ones. There’s reassurance in the mere act of travelling together, even if you don’t exchange a single word.
The daily bus route to my office, curiously numbered 13, didn’t merely help me survive the Canadian winter on an unyielding snow belt; it took me to a spot — aesthetic and emotional — where I ended up writing a poem on this journey. As I would discover, the public bus has its own community of poets and artists. Poetry on Buses is an initiative that encourages daily commuters in King County in Washington, the US, to write poems on their experiences on the bus and other modes of public transit. Their poems are then displayed on the local transit systems. In 2016, the project invited poems on the theme, “Your Body is Water.” The obvious comparison between water and public transport reminded me of own poem in which I imagine the streets on which the bus runs as a meandering river. In London, Ontario, where I live, a woman artist drew a series of sketches depicting life in the bus. She went on to post her illustrations at bus shelters around the city as a gesture of her appreciation for this mode of transport and its role in engendering a spirit of community.
The public bus is no longer foreign to me. It’s a mobile inn where I rest and recharge myself before the world appropriates my limbs and spirit.
The lips of the bald man, as he speaks of the “Indians and Pakistanis” he sees at the tennis court, curves into a sly smile. My racism detector picks up the snigger that sneaks through his lament on the status of those work-visa immigrants whose kids get Canadian citizenship by virtue of their birth. After the party, I recall how he tried to herd folks from the subcontinent into “all those IT workers.”
As he keeps probing my husband on his career track, the soft September evening makes me gravitate towards the late-arriving “immigrant.” The Muslim lady from Delhi. We relay hometown bonhomie with hugs and she tells me about her Bengali family — the one from Noakhali she married into. Her geologist husband had shifted base to teach at Aligarh Muslim University. She followed his trail from Delhi to Dubai, where he worked. Later she would migrate to Ontario as a widow with her two children. After the party, I think how, like her husband, she, too learned to measure the worth of soil as she brought up her son and the daughter–now an engineer and a doctor–by cleaning and decorating the finger and toe nails of customers at a salon.
The evening lulls us with its whispers, broken only by the whistle of the kettle the hostess is boiling tea in. Most of the guests have left after ingesting the aromatic lamb curry and saffron rice. We are left, along with the mildly immigrant-allergic man and his wife–beekeepers outside their corporate lives. The over-milked, boiled-to-death tea arrives. The host talks about how the British left behind a legacy of high-tea in the Indian subcontinent. The beekeeper woman shares her knowledge of the same, gleaned off a British historical novel. Her husband asks me and my husband about the type of English we were taught in schools in India. I talk about how it was much different from the American English the internet would later expose me to. After the party, the incredulous, near horrified look on the woman’s face as I told her about a generation of Pakistani writers using the English language with a subcontinental flourish, flashes before me.
It always starts with the kitchen.
Adventure is about burning your finger
on an alien stove. Pulling out
the cabinet doors, prying open
the drawers of catalogued cutlery —
cookmarks of successive lodgers.
Your excitement at the corelle set,
the one identical to yours at home
quickly dissipates. Home away from home
is never home. Pieces of ginger float
in your cottage tea. The view of the lake
Must compensate for the missing strainer.
You carry sacks of rice, vegetables
in brown bags, a half-eaten burrito from
lunch. Tandoori sauce for barbecuing meat.
Salt. Sugar. Oil for cooking.
The lake makes a pilgrim out
of you. Its tranquility
A placid mask for exacting love.
One of my favourite Salil Chowdhury songs opens with the idea of submitting oneself to the call of the road. “Straight paths have riddled me long enough,” it says, as the singer pledges to embark on a journey only so he can lose his way. This isn’t a drifter’s falling off course or a wanderer’s aimless straying; this is a conscious commitment – to be led by the road, pregnant as it is with possibilities, stories and intuitive wisdom. Often, the outcome of such journeys is transformative, and the evolution of the itinerant as continuous as the curves on the road.
One person’s journey is always his own – it can never be transposed to another’s experience or interpretation even if the path travelled on is the same. What is the point of recording such trips then? In reading The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara and On the Road by Jack Kerouac – two quintessential road trip books – I found the answer to that question to be more quizzical than evident. These are two very different journeys taken across different geographical locations in America, with different motives and sensibilities. As a reader, while I vicariously ventured on the trips outlined by the protagonists of these books, the real affection happened not with the travels themselves but with what they revealed. These were not acts of heroism (as Guevara would make clear at the very outset of his account) but almost the opposite – of allowing oneself to be vulnerable even when logic dictated otherwise.
In The Motorcycle Diaries, two friends in their early twenties take up an ambitious voyage across South America, an endeavour that would take them nine months to complete. Guevara, 23 years old at the start of the journey, wasn’t yet the firebrand revolutionary he would later become. He was, rather, an asthmatic medical student, who along with his friend, Alberto Granado, set out to explore the Latin American universe aboard a rickety Norton 500 motorcycle. It would be a difficult journey for the body and the soul; one that would test the narrator’s ability to maintain his poise when the going became treacherous.
In nine months of a man’s life he can think a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup — in total accord with the state of his stomach. And if, at the same time, he’s somewhat of an adventurer, he might live through episodes. [The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Che Guevara]
Sal Paradise, the protagonist of On the Road is also on a coast-to-coast road trip – across the United States of America. At different points during this epic journey he is joined by varying sets of people – friends and strangers and strangers who turn into friends, even if ephemerally. As I read through the pages of Paradise’s peregrine undertakings, based on Kerouac’s own adventures with Neal Cassady, a prominent Beat figure, I was struck by restlessness of spirit that the prose remarkably renders. True, Sal Paradise is on the road a lot of the time. Yet his journey begins not on the road; nor would it end once he had “arrived.” It starts and continues inside him.
If anything, both these testaments of passage are a rebellion against arriving. The exploration is as much within oneself as it is external. The idea is to find oneself by becoming one of the “many.” In The Motorcycle Diaries, as Guevara and Granado travel farther and deeper, they have a close brush with the lives of the poor and exploited. This becomes possible because of the tramp-like nature of their journey as their bike breathes its last in Chile. As they hitchhike their way through the Latin American landscape, a lot of times aboard trucks laden with indigenous people, Guevara realises the tremendous humiliation meted out to poor people across the continent—whether it be the persecution of a mining couple in Chile for the man’s “communist” leanings, or the abject conditions to which Peru’s native mountain tribes are subjected, or the sordid state of leprosy patients they visit at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru.
And because these are not sanitised, package-deal, calendar-carved travels, they record details with an impressionistic astuteness a tourist will most likely miss or decide to forget.
The floors of bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have. [On the Road, Jack Kerouac]
Even as I write this essay, I see the evening deepening, drawing dusk closer to its bosom. The summer, which came after an excruciatingly long winter, seems eager to move on already, making way for the fall. Both Guevara and Paradise are this summer – mercurial and anxious, hungry for tasting life in every possible way. For Sal Paradise, this search extends to testing his limits with drugs, sex, and psychedelic experiences. The goal is to taste and live freedom in its truest sense and the path to that goal is nonconformity and free-flowing.
“Dean and I are embarked on a tremendous season together. We’re trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on our minds. We’ve had to take benzedrine. We sit on the bed, crosslegged, facing each other.” [On the Road, Jack Kerouac]
Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and Paradise in On the Road are deliberate anti-heroes, choosing to be in situations that will force them to share their time and space with other ordinary folks – farmers and hobos, labourers and slum dwellers. The tragicomedy of this is sometimes of Chaplinesque proportions. And like the indefatigable tramp himself, these two road rovers don’t care two hoots about that. Quite remarkably, in fact, they seem to take pride in landing themselves in situations most people would take care to avoid. And it is in these comical scenarios that the ordinary is elevated to extraordinary, the hobo to a hero, the hapless motorcycle rider to a weather-beaten survivor.
Alberto, unmovable, was resisting the morning sun’s attempt to disturb his deep sleep, while I dressed slowly, a task we didn’t find particularly difficult because the difference between our night wear and day wear was made up, generally, of shoes. [The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Che Guevara]
If the life-is-a-search metaphor sparks off Guevara’s and Paradise’s motivation, the road must surely be their pilgrimage and destination rolled into one. In investigating the road’s possibilities and by digging into its stories, they impregnate her with yet more prospects and their own tales. Tales of not being deceived by the straight path.