The Pills are the Only Proof

if a crime continues to occur regardless of the enormous evidence available then is the crime invisible or the evidence invisible or are both visible but not seen?

I remember. Baba said:

“Quit your job and I will start a business for you.”

“I was at work, woman, I am tired. Be rational.”

“I am not going out with you wearing those rags.”

“Always on the phone but it’s never about money. Should we get you a job as a telephone operator?”

“I see your daughter has decided to become a prostitute now.”

“I tested negative.”

“Why do you always cry when I have done nothing to you?”

“Your whole family is retarded.”

“I keep helping your family, I never complain.”

“You are good for nothing.”

“Why would you give your school things to your mother? What does she know?” 

“You look so old.”

“Why weren’t you more welcoming?”

“I never have peace in this house.”

“I didn’t beat her, she fell.”

“I didn’t beat her, she fell.”

“How are other men so lucky with finding good wives?”

“It was one-time thing; she meant nothing. It won’t happen again.”

“It was one-time thing; she meant nothing. It won’t happen again.”

 “It was one-time thing; she meant nothing. It won’t happen again.”

“It was one-time thing; she meant nothing. It won’t happen again.”

 “It was one-time thing; she meant nothing. It won’t happen again.”

“I tested negative.”

If every moment contains the possibility of being alive and being dead, then could an acute awareness of every moment also create an acute consciousness of living and dying?

“It’s been a while Alpha, you look healthy. How is your mother?”

xxxxxxx“I don’t know, I haven’t seen her.”

“Is this what she told you to say? Speak up boy.”

xxxxxxx“I don’t know.”

“Everyone back home is shocked about why she would run away; all I have ever done is love your mother.”

xxxxxxx“Baba stop!”

“Don’t take that tone with me, I still pay for all of this. You seem to forget.”

xxxxxxx“She is sick now…you made her sick. Mama is dying. How could you?”

“Crying like your mother again. I swear it’s like I had all daughters.”

xxxxxxx“She is safe. She is not going back Baba, we won’t let her go back.”

“Be careful boy, remember who I am. Remember you all would have been and will be nothing without me.”

xxxxxxx“Baba!”

“Your mother is a laughingstock; tell me one bad thing I have ever done to her.”

xxxxxxx“Get out!” 

If we could separate every glance from the next, then could we separate our perception of what each consecutive glance is seeing?

“Mama, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

xxxxxxx“I wanted to be free, Alpha. To be free.”

Italic text sourced from Amar Kanwar’s exhibition The Sovereign Forest, courtesy of Ishara art foundation

Photo by Dalvin Mwamakula

Kadalamma speaks to me

Everytime I meet the sea I call Kadalamma at the Corniche, it calls me her kadal-kutti, her sea child, floating inbetween the gaps of land. Kadalamma says I will come back to her. Kadalamma came to me through my Ammuma’s flowing voice, the malayali folklore of a sea mother who is as mothers are: benevolence and rampage all in one. My hair’s waves are not the only way I am water, she speaks through the moonlit breeze combing my hair. My Amma is the storm of which I am the eye. My ancestral mothers bled seas before they bled life. Kadalamma carries the women whose clothes she soaks to protect their children from the fires of this funeral pyre earth. Kadalamma says we forgot we have come from her. We forget no fire we have learned to make, no earth we break, no air we poison, will destroy Kadalamma. We forget these borders we burn on the edges of the earth cannot hold her fury.

Image by Nada Al Mosa, “It’s Raining”

Cities and Eyes: The Twin Cities

Inspired by Italo Calvino

As she walks the winding road, the traveller pulls threads from her clothes and uses the dust under her fingernails to construct the unknown city in her palm before she gets there. She hides this model from her companion, ashamed of its size. Finally, when she is done with imagining, she might look up and realize that she has arrived at the crossroads between the Twin Cities.

One city lies to the left. It creeps up the sheer face of a mountain and insists on silence from the incoming traffic. The quiet city radiates out from a large square and the people look at you from ledges as you ascend. They carve the day’s history into wood. An elevator glides through the throat of the mountain, swallowing some and coughing up others. If you take the stone steps up, you’ll find a young man smoking outside of an old theatre. You’ve seen each other before, in another city, but won’t acknowledge it, or see each other again. Later, you might come to a cable-car that will take you to visit one of the gods. Please remove your shoes. This city is kind to monkeys and dogs, though the monkeys will not always be kind to you.

The younger twin lies to the right. It tumbles into a valley and nestles among mountains that make it feel small. Some parts of it stretch sleepily along a turquoise river. The people tiptoe over bridges and carve their names into rocks. A waterfall rushes nearby, tempting travellers to take the dangerous path to see it. Later, you will be jostled up a mountain and someone will sell you an umbrella so that you can leap off the sheer face. You will float above the city, your feet swinging wildly until you touch the ground. There are rafts on the glacial river and sometimes the sky is thick with balloons. If you eat at the cinderblock restaurant, the night will unfold like bird wings while a man sits beside you, smoking. You will both look at the passing headlights, those small moons.

Between the twin cities there is the gap, similar to the space that exists between two mirrors when you press them together. You long to slither into that space, to see the mirrors reflect themselves, but your presence changes everything, no matter how inconspicuous you wish you could be.

Artwork by Dayanita Singh “little ladies museum”

Growing Up With Rohan

Written by Kaashif Hajee

bhupen khakhar.jpg

“So, tell me, na. What’s your girlfriend’s name?” she asked intrusively.

It was a typical family get-together. Aunties, uncles and cousins descended at our – the
unlucky hosts’ – house. As usual, the kids hung out separately in the bedroom, while the adults caught up (read: gossiped) in the living room. When dinner was served, however, the various generations were forced to come together and find common ground.

“Come on, you can tell me – I’m very cool, you know,” she persisted. “Not like your
Mother.”

Small talk was closely alternated with uncomfortable questions.

Anjali Aunty was our mother’s sister – our self-identified “cool” aunt. What that essentially meant was that unlike the other elders, she wore jeans and dresses, frequently went out to eat and would always rescue us from boredom with contraband alcohol at family functions.

Most desi families have an Anjali Aunty. Instead of asking us the run-of-the-mill questions for which we had rehearsed answers – “How are your friends?” “How are your studies going?” “Have you thought about what you want to do in the future?” – Anjali Aunty would ask about the latest gossip, popular films and TV shows, and where we had gone to party the previous weekend. But now that Rohan had turned 15, the socially acceptable age for a boy to be mingling with girls, this playful, well-meaning question too became part of the dinner conversation menu.

“I actually don’t have a girlfriend, Aunty,” Rohan replied, complete with a fake chuckle, infused with embarrassment. “Mumma, could you pass me the paneer please?” he asked, in an attempt to deflect any more probing.

“Oh wow, you mean there’s more than one? Pankaj, I’m sure your son has gone on you,”
Anjali Aunty said to our father. “Have you given him all your pearls of wisdom from your days?”

“Oh god, stop it, Anjali,” he replied. “Why do we always go back to that?” He pretended to
be uncomfortable but was visibly proud. He had been married to our mother for nearly 20 years, but it still didn’t hurt to bask in the glory of his youthful philandering.

“I remember how many hearts Pankaj broke as a young man!” another uncle
proclaimed. “Until he settled down with our darling Sameera.”
“Yes! And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it now?” agreed Anjali Aunty. She turned back to Rohan. “So when are you going to let me meet her, huh? Or should I say ‘them’? I’ve seen your Instagram, beta, you can’t hide from me!” she laughed, self-indulgently.
“Arrey no, aunty, it’s not like that,” Rohan said. His face visibly showed pain from pretending.
“They’re just my friends.”
Like Anjali Aunty would ever believe that. How uncool. Just friends? With all those girls? Ludicrous.

There had always been a set of concrete expectations for Rohan, many of which he
hadn’t been able to live up to: he was supposed to play all kinds of sports, excel at maths and science, be tough and strong, the whole good boy deal. I still remember how much it bothered him when I beat him at tennis, and when he had to ask me, reluctantly, for help with physics.

He was always a better writer than me, though. He’d probably write this story better too.

That night after dinner, my mind was racing. As I lay on my bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, thoughts I had buried deep inside kept poking their ugly heads out. I could not for the life of me understand why it was so acceptable, and even encouraged, for him to have girlfriends (plural, apparently?), while I couldn’t have one boyfriend. For God’s sake, I was three years older than him! If boys are allowed to date during their teens, but girls aren’t, then who do the boys even go out with? It was absurd.

My thoughts tumbled ahead of me. Why was I so restricted? Because boys would take advantage of me? Treat me badly? And, of course, the old “log kya kahenge?” Yet nobody ever reprimanded my father for treating his high school girlfriends so loosely in the past. Nobody told him it was wrong.

Instead, my brother was encouraged to follow in his footsteps. And the logic was that my father always knew he wouldn’t eventually want to end up with “those kinds of girls” – the ones who chose to date him. He knew my mom was the one because she didn’t hang out with boys like him back then. I was supposed to be like her. Not the other girls, the kind my dad had dated. They lacked self-respect and integrity. Charming.

But Shanay and I had been quietly dating for two years now. I was crazy about him. He was smart, respectful, funny, and made me really happy. It was such a healthy, stable and mutually beneficial relationship, but I knew my parents would never see it that way. All it would look like was a boy tainting their lovely daughter, staining her integrity along with theirs.

My mind kept running a mile a minute. I wondered how and why having sex with Shanay was so different from my brother prospectively doing the same with other girls? Why did it not matter what I thought, felt or wanted? Why, instead of me not being allowed to date, was Rohan not being told to treat other girls with respect?

The rules have always been different for us. I can’t get away from that truth. Rohan can always go out whenever and wherever he wants, while I have a curfew, and get bombarded with phone calls whenever I leave the house. Llike I can’t look after myself at 18. I’m never allowed to go to sleepovers or on overnight trips, especially if boys will be there;  I’m always questioned if I’m seen talking to a boy for too long, hanging out too much, behaving “inappropriately.” Always: where are you, when are you coming home, who are you with, what are you doing, don’t talk to xyz, don’t go here, don’t go there, your skirt’s too small, dress too tight, shorts too short, neckline low, too much make up, take the red lipstick off, who are you trying to impress, stop attracting unwanted attention, stop, don’t, enough.

***

Rohan came into my room the next morning. “I want to talk to you about something.”
“What, Rohan?” I was annoyed. “If you want to complain about Anjali aunty and the fam then now is not the time – I have my own problems.”
“No, no, I don’t want to complain about that,” he shyly giggled.
“Okay then what happened? Don’t tell me you actually have a girlfriend and Anjali Aunty
called it before me.”
“No, but I think… I maybe kind of have a crush –”
“What! Oh my God, on whom? What’s her name? That’s so cool Rohan, your first proper crush in so long!” I started frantically looking for my phone to stalk this new girl on Instagram. “I was wondering what’s wrong with you. How long have you liked her for? How did you two meet? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

I was genuinely excited for him, but also silently bitter. It wasn’t fair. I could see it. He would ask her out, start dating her, our parents would let them go on fancy outings, bring her over and spend time in his room – no questions asked. I could never be that lucky.

“Who is she? Come on! Tell me.”

He replied, hesitantly, “His name is Gaurav.”

 

 

Artwork by Bhupen Khakhar

The Question of the Authentic Indian

A Review of Shani Mootoo’s Out on Main Street

In a striking short story titled Out on Main Street, the writer and visual artist Shani Mootoo deconstructs the idea of the authentic Indian identity, countering it with the notion of hybridity, which arises out of (post)colonial actions and legacies, cultural collisions and globalisation. Mootoo herself is a culturally-nationally hybrid figure. She is of Indian descent, but was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, moved to Canada at 19, and identifies as queer. This short story reflects the actual complexity of these intersections as they manifest in reality; it is set in Canada but is written explicitly in Trinidadian vernacular, mixed with some French and Hindi, and the narrator is a Trinidadian lesbian of Indian descent in the midst of encountering other similar types of mixed-identity characters. The effect makes the reader question and then debunk, in the context of this specific piece, what exactly constitutes a “real” or “authentic” Indian. Mootoo, through displaying such hybridity in her writing, both of and in the language, pokes holes in the myth that there is even such a thing as an “authentic” Indian (or any nationality/culture) and how ridiculous it is to have a set of standards for cultural/national purity in a world replete with increasing cultural collisions.

Mootoo sets up her argument right from the story’s introductory paragraph: “Janet and me?….we is watered-down Indians – we ain’t good grade A Indians”. Already, we are introduced to the concept of what it means to carry the label of “Indian”. Where there is “watered-down”, there implicitly is purity to act as a counterpoint. Mootoo makes it clear that her protagonists, both the speaker and Janet, are of Indian descent and also look it – their skin is the appropriate shade of brown, but nothing more. At the same time, the narrator and Janet speak both to each other, and to us as readers, in their language of comfort and seemingly birth nationality, which is Trinidadian vernacular. Mootoo implicitly attaches Indo to Trinidadian, to create a hybridity right from the beginning, that immediately calls for the reader’s attention. Meanwhile, she also begins alerting us to the stereotypical standards we prescribe to ‘real Indianness’. For instance, “grade A” is a soft allusion to the commonly held idea that Indians are academically driven, studious and straight-A students; this becomes a prescription for the perception of a ‘true Indian’, that the hybrid figure does not meet. They are different, diluted and thus, inauthentic.

Mootoo continues to tease out other methods of “watering down” or diluting the authentic Indian. There is the “kitchen Indian”, someone who only engages with the Indian culture by eating its food, but does not perform any other aspect of prescribed Indianness. We are prompted to question ourselves as readers about what our own standards for a ‘real’ Indian are, which will additionally alert us to the perhaps alarming thought that we actually harbour these standards, even if subconsciously, in the first place. The parameters for authenticity most likely differ from person to person but there will be common themes: raised in India, eating Indian food, religious – most likely Hindu, wear cultural dress, speak Hindi well, good at math and science, fairly conservative, observe tradition consistently. Straying from or stretching out these parameters results in a feeling of both cultural and national dissonance, both in a person’s internal and external space, and a resulting hyphenation of their identity to accommodate the unwieldiness of that complexity i.e the hyphen-born hybridity present in Indo-Trinidadian. Hence, that dissonance is exactly what would cause someone like the narrator to proclaim “all a we…is cultural bastards”, suggesting they have been proven illegitimate to bear the title of mono-cultural, pure, belonging authentically to the identity that perhaps only their physical body reflects. In other words, they are born outside of the culture they should fully be inhabiting, and this externalization or displacement makes them a “bastard”, an illegitimate child, whose physical features reflect their mother (culture) but their expressions of personal identity often stem from elsewhere – in the narrator’s case, being born as ethnically Indian but their language and disposition being distinctly from Trinidad.

There are several other types of hybridity Mootoo inserts into this story. Firstly, the narrator is a butch lesbian. Many prescriptions for the model Indian woman, largely stemming from Indian society itself, place pressure on women to perform a high level of docile, sweet femininity, to be “so femme that they’re redundant”, like the narrator’s girlfriend Janet. Indian society also has a long history of shunning homosexuality. By simply existing as who she is, the narrator, alongside the femme Janet, already challenges and pushes against these pressures while simultaneously feeling and inhabiting them.

In a later instance, we meet the “Chum-chum brothers”, cafeteria servers who appear Indian, and who mock the narrator for not prescribing to the authentic Indian standard for language, which would be a flawless performance of Hindi. Ironically, the brothers turn out to be from Fiji, therefore exposing they are ‘inauthentic’ Indians themselves; they too are immigrants, and products of an interesting postcolonially-motivated history in which indentured labor from South Asia was taken to places such as Fiji, Malaysia, Kenya and the Caribbean many generations ago. The very event of one of them mocking the other for not meeting some pure cultural identity standard that neither of them have, or could ever have, begins to feel completely absurd. Thus, Mootoo effectively rips another hole in the myth of there being any kind of purity or authenticity of identity in the first place.

What emerges is a narrative where space is made and filled by a variety of Indians who are expected to be impure or deemed “watered down”, by themselves, by other cultures, by similar “cultural bastards” and by all types of Indians. The expectations differ and so do the realities. In Out on Main Street, white men walk into an Indian cafeteria and offer a Muslim greeting because that is their perception and reaction to their model of the Indian. This standard is unmet. The Fijian-Indian servers place an expectation on the narrator’s language to reflect, seamlessly, her Indian heritage, by speaking good Hindi and performing an idealized femininity. This too is unmet. A critical Indian woman, cheekily called Giraffebai by the narrator, places a pressure on Indian males (in this case, the servers) to be respectful even though she believes they are not, in retaliation to Western expectations placed upon all Indians to be “sexist and uncivilized”. These are complicated chains of expectations placed upon the Indian identity from all directions, both from outside and within, which coalesce into the prison-like fencing of a model for authenticity – which, in reality, does not exist beyond our own trappings of stereotype and prejudice.

“So tell me, what yuh think ‘bout dis…” Mootoo asks us in the final line of her story. What she really demands of us is to go back and question the assumptions and pressures we place on people to perform mono-cultural identities that conform to what they are supposed to be rather than what they actually are. Mootoo urges us to see the myth of cultural authenticity for what it is – a myth. An Indo-Trinidadian is not just Indian, but specifically, Indo-Trinidadian, emphasizing that equal space is given for both to exist side by side, and respected as legitimate that way, both within notions of Indian identity and Trinidadian identity. And aside from inhabiting these hyphenated realities or hybrid identities, these figures are also so much else, regarding the many other intersections and permutations of other aspects of their identity, such as their sexual orientation. Mootoo pushes us as readers to ponder ways to make space for hybridity and to accept it as real and authentic too. That hybridity does not make anyone less or diluted or improper, or deserving of chastisement, shame, mockery and most importantly, a sense of failure. Ultimately, we are reminded that no one is and should be considered a failure for being who they are, but rather, the failure lies in our ability to accept the complexity of what that actually means for various human beings and their complicated yet completely valid sense of belonging.

 

 

Artwork by Nimisha Bhanot