First published in Train: a poetry journal
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.
We stand on a
Rather, we’re trying
Our best to remain on our feet.
We still don’t know
What lies in the womb of this earth
Although, if you listened closely,
You’d hear the warnings of an imminent doom
Even more sinister than the hiss of a million snakes.
But we don’t move an inch; as if
Standing still is our only safety,
And a possible one. Looking agape at
Church spires and the giant
Pillars of the stock exchange, we
Marvel at the magnificence of god
And feel relieved that ours is a
Free country whose borders
Are patrolled by gun-wielding guards.
Even though the earth beneath our feet is a simmering volcano;
Even though there’s no sky above us.
এক অদ্ভুত মাটির উপর
আমরা দাঁড়িয়ে আছি ;
অর্থাৎ দাঁড়িয়ে থাকার জন্য
প্রাণপণ চেষ্টা করছি
এ মাটির গর্ভে কী আছে
আজও আমাদের জানা নেই
যদিও কান পাতলে শুনতে পাওয়া যায়
এক লক্ষ সাপের গর্জনের চেয়েও
কোন ভয়ঙ্কর পরিণাম, যা ক্রমেই আসন্ন হচ্ছে |
কিন্তু আমরা এক পা-ও এদিক ওদিক
নড়ছি না ; যেন স্থির দাঁড়িয়ে থাকাই
আমাদের নিরাপত্তা, এবং তা সম্ভব | আমরা গির্জার গম্বুজগুলির
এবং স্টক এক্সচেঞ্জের চার দিকের বিরাট স্তম্ভগুলির দিকে
বিস্ফারিত চোখে তাকিয়ে থেকে
এক সময় ঈশ্বরের মহিমাকে জানতে পারছি
আর এই কথা ভেবে নিশ্চিন্ত হচ্ছি—
আমাদের স্বদেশ স্বাধীন এবং তার সীমান্তে
বন্দুকধারী প্রহরীরা প্রত্যহ টহল দিচ্ছে |
যদিও পায়ের নিচে মাটি এখন অগ্নিগর্ভ ;
যদিও আমাদের মাথার উপর আকাশ বলতে কিছুই নেই |
Morningness bathes you. Grandfather’s
Arms rise skywards. The newspaper-man
hurls elastic-clasped, rolled-up
headlines into the porch. Mother
lights the stove to wake up milk.
Ahir Bhairav takes you to a place
so empty, it’s full. The absolute centre
of nothingness. The beginning of
all beginnings. A lighthole.
In a slowly-igniting corner of your mind,
your guru’s saintly beard unspools.
You can hear him talking about the sadhu
who devoted his life to the service of Bhairav,
the primordial sound. Your guru’s smile is
a cryptic message now.
Vilayat and Imrat lead you with strings.
Unscratched morning flows into
a cowshed. The uniraga sadhu still
befuddles, but with Ahir Bhairav, you
partake in a fraction of his madness, his
self-absorbed samadhi in the lighthole.
The school girl dreams. One day she’ll tune
her voice to the throat of the songbird
whose call mocks the cage of age.
FISH OUT OF WATER
Water was the first traitor she came
To know. It didn’t drown her.
Seasoned traitors seldom do that.
She was the river’s sibling-child, knew
its mood swings, joaar and bhata
like she did her night terrors, throat-clasping.
Easy to forget once the grip loosened.
When father spread his net over
its body, the river heaved through
the mesh, packing fish into its giant
mouth. She should have known then
What it is to be thrown onto dry
Ground. Gasp. Wriggle. Writhe. Succumb.
Forget that water ever nestled your breath.
The river’s betrayal came not in abandoning her.
It did when it became a concrete mesh,
And she, a fish in the city’s sewage tank.
A long-dead poet brings home truths to the work desk.
Mid-day ennui seeks lunch break and a walk in the park.
Between flesh and flight, the girl chooses to ride the breeze
Like kebab smoke trailing the gallies of purani Delhi. Careless, footloose.
Another dead poet dreams of a new day on earth, a more womanly day.
Old wounds find new ways of festering. Congealed blood rejects washing.
Rain harnesses in megapixels tears that no longer wet hearts.
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.
“She was playing with little girls in the neighbourhood alley.”
This is how Saadat Hassan Manto opens his story Das Rupay (Ten Rupees). “She” is the story’s young protagonist, yet, as Manto implies by introducing her with the generic third-person pronoun instead of her name, she could be any girl. Nearly eight decades after he wrote that story, she – the fictitious Sarita – seems to be gathering a disconcertingly increasing number of real-life sisters in India. As one comes across news reports of little girls being sexually violated – each more harrowing than the other – across the country, Das Rupay serves as an unnerving reminder of everything that’s at stake for and taken away from a young girl when she is raped.
Pushed into the flesh trade by her mother, 15-year-old Sarita is more a little girl than a teenager. Like most little girls, she’s free from worries. She enjoys, like I did in my teens, playing with girls a lot younger than her. And from the slivers of her personal life that have filtered through the horrific news surrounding an eight-year-old girl’s rape and murder in Kathua, we know she enjoyed playing with her horses. More recently, in the case of an 11-year-old girl who was raped by a dozen-and-half men over seven months in Chennai, her mother blithely assumed her daughter was playing with her friends when, in fact, she was being sexually abused.
Back in my teenage years, not all neighbours appreciated my propensity to play with girls younger than me. Some found such “childishness” annoying. As Tagore, too, illustrates in his short story, Samapti, this expectation for a girl to relinquish her girlhood no sooner than she hits puberty is anything but atypical in the Indian context.
In Das Rupay, Sarita’s playing in the nukkad irks her widowed mother for a different reason. Her daughter is an easy source of income and she hates to keep Kishori, the local pimp – and the fat-pocketed customers he brings – waiting. As a cover for her complicity in trafficking her own child, the mother makes tall claims like, “I’m thinking of enrolling her to the municipality school that just opened,” which her neighbours know to be a sham. Sadly, for today’s flesh-and-bone Saritas, the school building isn’t always a safe place. School teachers, older students and even a principal in Patna can turn into sexual predators, as recent news reports suggest.