Excavating Company: After the Surgery

For those who live alone, without family, but with some friends–

went in for an arthroscopy [keyhole surgery on my right knee] on Thursday, ten years after the original injury. I had gotten so used to pain that neither myself nor the people around perceived it any more–pain had became a ghost companion for a decade, almost invisible to myself and those about me. But un/fortunately, the young doctor, whom I finally consulted, rewrote perception. I had to allow pain to assert its presence, make its existence known.Arthroscope

Almost immediately after I see the young doctor, I go in for surgery, spend one night in the hospital, and become dependent on the goodwill of others. In the process, my childhood heroes, women whom my mum had held up as exemplars of goodness, prove Mum is always right. Padmasini checks me in, discharges me, takes me home, messages me with offers of help the following morning–all the while denying that she does anything out of the ordinary.

Other friends spend the night, keep me company, but once home, I’ve myself. Being home after surgery, finally, alone, I have to struggle to throw off the habit of dependancy that hospital and enforced attendance have induced in a day. Even to answer a phone call induces stress, to move, sometimes to get up, to reach for the bloody tiny machine.

And, just as I get home, after the long process of discharge, getting my stuff together, struggling down hospital stairs, into the car, and up to my room, a friend calls. Trembling, anxious, tense [even with the good Padmasini by my side], I don’t want to answer. But, seeing the name, and grateful for her help in spending the night with me in the hospital, I pick up, intending only to let her know I’d call her back. cartoon-mobile-phone-rage-faceBut, oblivious to my panic, she continues the call, informing me that I have to call the lunch delivery guy. In my panic I yell, “PUH-LEESE, I’ll call you back!”

So, I call back after awhile when I’ve rested a bit, only to find the phone left ringing unanswered.

Yes, she did call again to inform me–“she’d call back”–which she hasn’t so far. Oh the problems of social interaction, with psychological games, when I must contend with my own resistant anxious body and mind! Moving around is a matter of judgment, as I must monitor my knee, make sure to sit down each time with my feet up, not to stand. When the phone is left elsewhere, I make a decision to lower the legs and answer. When well meaning friends call to ask “how are you? I’ll drop by sometime,” I’d rather be left alone.

And yet, last evening, when another of my childhood heroes, Kalpana, called to tell me she was coming by, despite taking her son to the dentist, despite having to see her sister in hospital [also admitted for surgery], despite nursing a horrendous cold, I am overjoyed. Pain and Panic vanish.

So, as I question throughout life, what makes the difference? What sets apart one human interaction from another? Is it the depth of emotion? Is it love versus social interaction? Is it the authenticity of the self? And, how did/ does Mum know so far back in the past??mum knows best

So–I bumble, stumble, through life and living, affection and hurt, human and social interaction….pain imperceptible, not of the body so much but of the mind, ghost companion at my side.

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On Show– The Female Body Controlled

Sitting at the bay window in my room, I watch the heavens open up in sympathy with my frustrations–another day at the bootcamp in Kodaikanal, South India. In hot pursuit of the body beautiful, Western and Indian cultural morés and consumer values intertwine, but through that fabric of expectation, the male gaze remains a constant.

"The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. Its display of one anorectic and one obese woman is a demonstration against modern society's obsession with how we look. "

“The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. Its display of one anorectic and one obese woman is a demonstration against modern society’s obsession with how we look. “

Today–I’ve reached a state of out-of-body fatigue, where the body moves like a rag doll, every movement propelled by will.  But I duly wake up at 4 am, do the journal the trainers requested, have my weight checked, then slowly, slowly, move out for a walk. More than physical exercise, I need the company of trees, of rising sun and mountains. Buoyed by this dawn camaraderie, I return and press on with my yoga: no chants, just stretches, and attempts at breathing deep. But, there’s a limit, my body lets me know that its all it can do to stay upright.

So, then, breakfast, whereupon I hang out with my trusty Macbook downstairs, waiting for the internet and geyser to warm up before I limp up the stairs, step by slow step, for my bath.  P—, trainer guy of the beautiful bod, is concerned, questioning me if I’m still hungry; he is, perhaps, guilty about his hard nosed refusal of a second helping of lentils the day before (60 cals over although my stomach has refused the bread served).  So, hey, everything’s hunky dory so far, if I’m just tired tired tired.  Finally, I lumber up the wooden stairs to take a bath in the bathroom shared with P and K, another stress magnet.  In my room, the bay window is unveiled, blinds up, open to the sun–nobody’s out on the deck, the other client, young Rishabh, hates the sun and is resting in his room. I’ve been reassured couple of times in the last days that privacy is mine, nobody climbs the hill opposite or trains binoculars into the room.

photo © Maxim Vakhovskiy

photo © Maxim Vakhovskiy

So, peeps, dear blog trawlers, fatigued even more after bath, I sit myself down on the bed to nurse my legs with pain gel, my big brown, tattooed female body, droopy breasts, saggy stomach, love handles and all, backing the window. Lost in my aches and pains, I suddenly espy, from the corner of my eye, movement outside–men–Indians, laborers–are busy moving the pots outside the window on the deck; they’ve finished three quarters of the deck.  Stupefied, horrified, I am paralyzed because, of course, they are enjoyed that big brown female naked body—mine!  I dash for a sarong, yards away, hanging behind the door, wrap it about me.  But I’m frozen again, gazing at them as their studied movements reveal their relish. I’m glued to the door, stuck to the corner of the room. Gradually, very very slowly I make my way back to the cupboard, reach for a caftan and pull it over the sarong.

The angle of their heads tells me, “O yes, we’re enjoying the show!” So, caftan clad, I sidle up to the bay window, and finally, ah, finally pull the blinds down separated only by the glass from the watchers as I do this.  Free at last from their eyes, I give vent to my rage as I grab a black sweatshirt, pulling it down over the caftan. “Fuck this,” I scream at the door, pull it open, and shout down to K—, the trainer’s wife and yoga mistress. My fury stemmed for the moment by her abject apology and shocked comprehension, I realize that, as a woman, she understands not only the violation of the male gaze, but as an Indian woman she realizes the peculiar lechery of class underwriting that violation. Hey, but rich or poor, the male Indian gaze has a ferocity all its own.

peeping tomSilent, I proceed down those wooden stairs, and flop onto the blue couch in the ritzy living room. P—, trainer guy, comes up,

“What happened?”

Tell me,” he insists, as I protest that I’ve already told his wife and he should ask her. But, I recount the incident, rage rising to the surface as I do. P— responds, initially, with a mild apology that he should’ve informed me before sending the workers to the deck, but, almost immediately, he changes tack:

How could you change with the window open? Rishabh, (who hates the sun, like all privileged Indians conscious of skin color!) could have been outside. You should be more careful.”

Incredulous I begin to defend myself:

“But I did check, the place was totally deserted. I was sitting with my back to the window when I realized the workers were there.”

As I mount my defense, I wonder at myself. Only the evening before as we were getting ready to go out to the club for soup, P— and his wife had entered my room.

The blinds were down as it was late evening and I’d had the lights on. P— commented then,

“hey why do you have the blinds down, the view is beautiful.”

“Well, the lights are on, and I don’t know who might be peeking in through the rain,” I return in reply.

“The hill side’s deserted, nobody is out there,” he affirms.

Backing up his claim retroactively, the masseuse the previous week, had insisted,

“Keep the blinds up, nobody’s going to look into the window from so faraway.”

And as all of us knew, young Rishabh next door was totally uninterested in the deck, the joke of house was that he had to be forced outdoors for a bit of sun for his own good.  Ironically, although I had the bay window in my room, his room had access outdoors.

the fateful roof deck, my window to right

the fateful roof deck, my window to right

Anger surfaces now at myself and P–, arch jock who claims to ‘love’ women: I retort,

Don’t turn this back at me! Is the guest always to blame?

Of course, by that I mean the woman guest:

If you guys send workers on the deck, as the hosts of the program and house you fucking have to inform the occupants of the room, male or female.

My feminist self back on track, I settle myself on the couch downstairs until the workers leave.  P—, his hackles up, storms outside to be Mr. Fixit.  I lie, shivering, cold, muscles tense, for an hour or so, when I finally leave to creep into the violated room, now with the blinds down but with the willing voyeurs continuing their work outside the glass.  Heaping the duvet, blanket, and throw over me, I fall into an exhausted sleep, willing to forego lunch at the table with the Master of the house.

But, come dinner time, I have no escape.  I force myself downstairs. All the four of us seated about the table, P— looks at me and queries, kindly paternalistic smile on his face, “Everything ok? You alright?”  At that, with my gorge rising, womanist old me, throws back, “You alright?” Of course, Master Trainer’s dignity went for a toss–he couldn’t take that.  So we agreed, lets part.  “Mutual differences.” Catchall phrase.

“Get It Out of Me” by Heather Keith Freeman

“Get It Out of Me” by Heather Keith Freeman

Addendum:

After all was decided, and my bags packed, hotel room booked, I did manage to explain to P— why his paternal 34 man’s years to my 53 woman’s years attitude was so indigestible to me.

"My Body Isn't Mine" by Heather Keith Freeman

“My Body Isn’t Mine” by Heather Keith Freeman

Loving women is not the same as feeling women, being sensitized to women’s issues in an often violent, misogynist world. “Would you,” I ask him, “treat a 53 year old Indian man the same way as you have treated me?” Of course, there had been other previous incidents of the Young Master of house and gym extending his Fatherly (!) arm over me…..but the report/story ends here.

 

Monks of the Body Beautiful

I sit here in another’s space, blue couch, and busily ornamented, textured white walls–outsider’s space in which I decide that, after the gap of more than a year, I must write again.  On Facebook today, I happened upon a post that suggested that writing = thought.  I would qualify that writing=responsible thought.  If I take the trouble to put words onscreen or on paper, I hold myself accountable now and later.  They may come back to haunt me.

Living in another’s house, on a fitness program, or whateverelse, all paid up, is a peculiarly ambiguous venture.  You pay to abdicate control over yourself –you relinquish your habits and philosophies, store them on a safe shelf in the home you  leave.  You may or may not use them again when you return fit and re-shaped, another self.  As as my project takes place in India, the rules and expectations are left unvoiced but obtrude suddenly at unexpected junctures.  I am left to stumble about, bring my middle aged, overweight, body and mind into the upmarket dwelling of a young, fit couple.  To clarify, I have embarked on a fitness bootcamp for a couple of months (ideally), in Kodaikanal, a small hillstation in Tamil Nadu, South India.  [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitness_boot_campboot campThe fitness program is run in the house of the trainers, a small but exclusive dwelling in a gated community and cannot cater to many residential clients.  Currently we are but two, Rishabh, a young chubby man about town from Mumbai, India’s largest city, and me, from an ashram in an village of Andhra Pradesh.

P—, our trainer, believes in what he does, his particular philosophy of body and mind, and expects you to follow him without undue questions.  At 34, he is proud, justifiably, of his toned, beautiful body, and his attractive, slim wife who is 6 years younger.  And I, a middle aged, 53 year old, funky, bisexual feminist, have to negotiate the undercurrents.  Often I realize K— the wife will say or suggest something, only to withdraw her ideas in the face of her P—‘s disapproval.  K— is thin, fit, rather overzealous about her weight and her house.  As I’ve been there in my own OCD of cleanliness, I cannot help but recognize the symptoms but reap the benefits of the attention to home, decor, and appearance.

The irony here is that the couple appear thoroughly westernized, a paradox of young India:  P— dresses in top of the line sports clothes, wears thirty thousand rupee designer sunglasses, K— models Abercrombie and Fitch figure hugging clothes.  p n k[check out the controversy over that company’s policies– http://www.businessinsider.in/Abercrombie-Fitch-Refuses-To-Make-Clothes-For-Large-Women/articleshow/21136601.cms] The ‘westernization’ or ‘with it’ exterior however does not penetrate skin deep: husband and wife are products of Indian sindhi conservative culture.  [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sindhis_in_India]  P—‘s mother handed over her precious son to the willing hands of his young wife who now caters to his needs, while maintaining her body, a not uncommon role in India.  P— finds any suggestion of fat unappealing, un-hot.  The couple, please note, are almost white skinned, as are most of the Sindhi community, so naturally the label of ‘un-hot’  extends to cover the darker skinned denizens, the majority, in fact, of the Indian sub-continent!

They are proud to announce they do not want children.  “We are going to be monks, renunciants,” K— tells me.  P— confirms, “We are without desires, our lifestyle is only temporary.”  buddhist_monkOf course, I find the discouse seductive.  The couple are into Vipasana meditation and K— has just returned from a month’s training in the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala for her advanced yoga instructor’s certificate.  The spotless house and vintage furnishings with the requisite fittings and physical comforts, all western amenities, are, as I mentioned earlier, equally enticing.  I note the delivery of  a Bose mini speaker system for the gym, the huge flat screen tv that dominates the living room.  In fact when I turn on the lower end channel, P— chides me, “hey, which channel are you watching, dude, go for the HD.”  His subscriptions are only to  the premier channels that offer high definition tv.

He is dedicated to the body.   The discipline necessary for a beautiful bod–hard training and conditioning, restriction of food–is full time, obsessive, a yoga in itself.  And charming K— teaches us yoga, chanting the mantras and re-telling buddhist fables to the other ‘client’ here, the young boy of 23 from Bombay, privileged, wealthy, and overweight, but totally submissive to P—‘s will, uber guru of fitness.  The three of them are a little thrown by me, the overweight ashram dweller who has a tattoo, dresses a little too street–a single woman who lives in an ashram but cannot take mantras or chants.  No brand names for me, but, obviously I must be okay in the pocket to be able to afford the plush bootcamp.

Young Rishabh, the Bombayite, quizzes me one day when we are having dinner tete à tete, with K— and P— out on a dinner date:  “how do you fund yourself?”  I reply that I live on the proceeds of selling my house, on the interest.  “Do you have investments?”  he probes, “how do you spend your time in the ashram?” And I account for my day to day schedule.  The problem with me is that I am not easily quantifiable, I do not ‘fit’,  my freakishness is both my strength and a dilemma for the others.  Ah, new India, now almost a fascist Modi India whose values rest on the Rupee, the bank account, and the body that money can buy all the while vociferously reaffirming an ancient misogynistic culture.  [http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/gupshup/modis-new-india.html]  The Monks of the 21st century.

 Liu Xue Hybrid Sculptures


Liu Xue Hybrid Sculptures

 

Of fools like me–eccentrics in a spiritual asylum

Subramaniam died a week ago, and I didn’t know (‘cos I can be a recluse). One of the nights before I knew he’d died, I remembered him intensely– a gush of emotion and memory that prevented sleep.

He’d been really sick, moaning, and unable to walk by himself. He moaned like an animal in distress, a cat or baby who couldn’t escape his pain, and the sound drew me to my window. A carpenter (or, some such ordinary laborer) was leading him along, explaining he was sick to those who looked askance at them. Beautiful, unthinking kindness that, unlike my self-centered selfishness that saw, and yet let him be. I hesitated to approach them though my heart pushed me to Subramaniam (life always makes me regret the times when my rational mind overrides my heart).

Then, few days later, he came by. I asked him how he was, and he replied that he’d been dizzy, round face still drawn and tired. But, I reassured myself he’d be back as usual when memory and emotion assailed me with guilt that night. Next day, my maid told me he was dead. A shock.

O, what avail tears? what avail regret and love when I hesitated to approach him that day. I’m reblogging my post in memory and grief—

Waiting to Be

Around the corner from me lives Subramaniam.  When I sit here at my window, I see him as he rolls by, white haired, chubby faced, rotund. Although he must be at least 65 years old, there is still something childlike about him.  Mornings he sports a bed head, white hair sticking up in spikes, a look that I still (52 myself) attempt to duplicate with hair gel or wax.  His clothes are different too: for the last three days he wears the same bright red baggy pants, and a loud red plaid shirt.  With his hands scrunched up like a child’s, one finger pointing toward the ground, he is the resident ‘Idiot’, a fool, certainly mental.

Continuing to live on in the ashram after my Mum died, I heard a loud rapping at the front door suddenly one night.  Nine o’clock is late night here, particularly in those days a…

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Dark Female Selves: undermining the Market’s stranglehold

xenaEver notice, that as much as we’d like to be in control as proper feminist women, our emotions undermine us.  We go all soft and queasy imagining seductions that sweep us off our feet.   Disapproving though I am, of the institution of marriage and commitment, a sly self within me longs for sexual seduction replete with monogamous fucks.  Yes, my suspicions about human sexuality cast aspersions on women (and men) in committed relationships.  For that, please bear with me– my inner woman often sits and watches for a white knight to ride by (although the knight is sometimes a tough femme in kickass boots and tats, think Xena, Warrior Princess).  My inner woman seems in league with a world that’s in the process of institutionalizing gay couples whom marriage (and tax benefits) makes safely monogamous.

/www.imaginative-traveller.com

/www.imaginative-traveller.com

Tucking the fantasist firmly back in place, I put on my glasses (varifocal, naturally) to examine the world at large.  Wherever I turn, consumerism/ media/ capitalism marches hand in hand with indiscriminate sexual desire.  Looking at ads, even rifling through the newspaper, I wonder if sexuality is the underlying thrust (deliberate patriarchal metaphor there) to global markets.  There’s always a new and better model in the works, coercing us into wanting, wanting, wanting in an endless frenzy of desire.  Undiscovered gadgetry awaits us–cars, mixies, make-up, homes, vibrators.  In the name of adventure and getaway, as a reward for labor through the work year, we colonize remote cultures and beaches.  All is tech and tourism.

outsourceWe in the ‘third world’ have been blessed–we have been outsourced to.   So, to deal with Western customers, the Indian young learn to speak English with an American accent (not, however, with much grammar) to counsel the first worlders about gadgets and money instruments.  An Indian accent will not do in such scenarios:  along with jobs, and money, the young mold themselves into capitalist globetrotters.  They leap easily over oceans and histories.  Driving into Bangalore every other month or so, I marvel that the States I left in the mid-nineties has come back to haunt me in 21st century India.

Speaking for myself, I can only eat so much, play so much, fuck so much, before my appetite is sated and I turn jaded.  Some days food tastes like sawdust in the pizzerias and chi-chi restaurants of Bengluru.  The name has turned indigenous, if the city has turned mongrel.  ‘Bangalore’ the garden city of the Brit colonizers, has now become the concrete city as a taxi driver informs me in pidgin, English-Kannada mix.  We’ve recovered from the British and the thrall of white civilization only to fall prey to the racism-s and attendant -isms of making money.   Lightening our melanin [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_skin_color] tainted skins, underarms and vaginas, Indian women fall into the arms of MNCs (Vichy, Dove, Unilever, to name only a few).  [http://jezebel.com/264396/indian-women-whiten-their-skin-fight-the-patriarchyShonit Biswas 1 year ago, comments, “such sexy milky, creamy, smooth, armpits…wanna lick them for hours”  Viscerally offputting remark, yes, but common sentiment voiced by young Indian men,  typical consumers of the marketed white flesh available everywhere.

As a grad student in the States, I came acrosss Luce Irigaray, feminist philosopher.  [http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/294014/Luce-Irigaray]  Reading her writings, my anger took visible shape as a Feminist.  In the binaries of patriarchal thought, white=value=rational thought=male.  Even in casteist India today, the upper caste boasts of fair skin, and lower castes are consigned to  blackness. [see discussions here– http://www.patheos.com/blogs/drishtikone/2012/04/varna-caste-system-and-skin-color-shallow-understanding-and-dubious-arguments/ and http://historum.com/asian-history/18145-were-indian-castes-based-racism-skin-color.html%5D   Perhaps today, wealth is an efficacious skin lightener, a class marker that recasts caste!

If we reflect on the binary logic of most contemporary languages and cultures, white=sun=day=virtue=light=male, and black=earth=night=sin=dark=female. Although, Irigaray sees the binaries working through Western philosophy, I find the same logic operating through contemporary Indian thought and custom.  Linked by media and market value, pretty similar logic works through different nations on various levels, although inflected by particular histories and cultures.  Its a small, small world–dictatorships, capitalists, socialists, democracies–bound together by MONEY.

The Hindus, for example, bow down to the Sun god, perform elaborate ritual namaskars, or prostrations, in His praise, and deny the Goddesses of earth and night.  [http://www.shantiyoganola.com/sun-salutations-the-meaning-of-surya-namaskara/]  In the Ramayana, sacred Hindu epic, Sita the virtuous queen–abducted by a demon and released, presumably unravished–finally retreats to the maternal bosom of Goddess Earth, in revolt against the aspersions cast on her chastity.  [I link here to Namita Gokhale‘s thoughtful analysis of the role of Sita as virtuous wife for any reader interested in that mythic Indian wife: http://namitagokhale.com/sita.html.]  For the chaste queen, the only way out is a descent into earth and darkness.Sita cries

As I sit here to type my disquiet at Indian patriarchy,  I look about me.  Men charge around the ashram dressed in whites, women sport colorful saris.  Where is virtue vested, in these sartorial symbols?  My own androgynous Merlin, my Swami suggested that darkness begat light, and not the other way about. Darkness, he hinted, encompassed all, even light nurses a seed of darkness. In my past hours of meditation, dark beckoned to me: I concentrated on following thought until I thought no more, encompassed in the warmth of godly dark.  Only Swami made sense of my attraction to the dark.

If in the binaries of logic, then, one side is devalued, must it be the associations of the feminine?  Women in the real world often embrace male rationale, rise to power, become leaders in politics, industry, commerce, or academia: Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook.  [see for eg.–http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/women_worst_enemy_sjGvDqEhR54DfmBOsMLc9K]  And men may, in their way, reclaim the feminine, my own Merlin for example.  Our genders are fluid, shaped by our selves and our particular histories, even if our physical bodies are sexed.   So, my love of the dark womb of the earth, the vast black of Space and goddess,  must subvert the masculine–the bold seductions of consumerism, of phallic sexuality and its institutions.  Where am I headed, then?

"In and Under Water" painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez

“In and Under Water” painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez

O, but that’s a question based in the logic of patriarchy.  I refuse to journey from point B to point A, to climb higher, to progress to a GOAL….  I move in circles, I travel in mazes, I let darkness enclose my steps, I cannot know where the goddess goes.  She presses my hand, I tremble with fear and joy, I live–and, I wait to die into the dark.

Cooking! A Personal Fable of Repercussions

Days now, I haven’t been outside my tiny apartment, haven’t written, haven’t spoken to people except, of course, Shymala, the little maid who comes in to do for me.

“Why?” you ask, dear Reader, 21st century drifter through code, browser of tabs via Google, or Bing, or Facebook,mere happener upon, who stumbles through bit-media onscreen.   Whatever, dear Reader, these words are no aspersion on yourself; rather, I comment on my own inadequacies in facing down the bright Macbook screen.  And yet, when I don’t write, the days are empty, full of gloom that the monsoon skies intensify.   I have not walked, have not written, but, but I have been Cooking.

cooking_indian womanCooking again after months, nay, years, I handle vegetables and spices, wield the big chef’s knife to chop flora, fauna and fruit to create Food for myself.  Not an innocent activity, this!  Rife with ambivalence, cultural dissonances of women at the stove, making huge healthy meals for the family, while Man sits with his paper and pipe. And what is cooked, how it is cooked writes class and caste, as well as gender–here, in the ashram, in India, and in different ways all over our little glorious globe.  I have the means, so I’ve been trying out cooks, too, while cooking myself.  One cook arrives, announcing that she is Brahmin.  The pitfalls ahead loom before me–I don’t like Brahmins.  Just as a matter of principle, I’m wary of superiority complexes.

Garlic or onions induce the lower animal passions, according to the Brahmanic Hindu tenets.  Unfortunately, I adore garlic.  Onions follow close in my affections, and I’m susceptible to animal passions–much preferable to Human Virtue, in my humble opinion.   On informing her of my culinary preferences, she assures me that she will work willingly with garlic, add as many pungent cloves as I wish.  So, the Brahmin cooked for me, and on her departure, Shymala (not Brahmin) and I (mongrel mixbreed) sampled her prowess–swimming in oil, overladen with salt.  Thankfully, a medical emergency in the family prompted her exit the very next day, and I was saved from pointing out that if the Brahmin didn’t taste her own cooking, she wouldn’t know what she was cooking, horrid or ambrosial.

Sinner as I am, reveling as I do in my lack of virtue, my food choices are not regulated by moral imperatives.  More in sympathy with animals than humans, eating chicken or beef or mutton or lamb is akin to cannibalism for me.  In my dark and twisted moods, I often speculate that it makes more sense for humans to kill our own kind.  We propagate so easily that our species is in danger of overrunning the earth to the detriment of all other species.posh_salmon_  [check out Carl Sagan on the human species–http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/07/08/carl-sagan-meaning-of-life/] For years, I didn’t eat fish either,  but when a fancy for seafood beset my taste buds the last year, I indulged.  But, the taste of seafood is losing its savor:  a silver fish tumbled out out the sea at my feet, before the waves gathered it in again, while I was walking on Varca beach a few months ago.  In that brief moment, the fish bound me to its silver flashing being.

Thankfully on my return to Puttaparthi, I left choice behind as the ashram, naturally, is vegetarian.  Contemplating the vegetables that Shymala buys at the weekly village shandy [http://times-voice.blogspot.in/2011/11/village-shopping-mall-or-shandy_08.html], their succulent selves however, I am prey to doubt.  Often times, they lie in my fridge in the veggie drawer, quietly turning moldy, rotting without discovery.  Unaware of their plight, I plunge days later into the fridge only to find them decomposed.  To cook, to eat is a depraved activity, no matter what. I wish I could pluck fruits from the tree, gnaw roots salt with earth in some phantasmal alter world.

courtesy: Selvankavi TOI

courtesy: Selvankavi TOI

Perhaps alcohol is the safest bet, clean and pungent liquid that obscures the plight of the non-human world from my mind and eyes.  Coffee is another such:  I grind the beans, fill the expresso pot with coffee grains, and aaahhh, sniff the steaming brew.  Morning is expresso or should I put it the other way around–expresso, dark and rich, is morning for me, ushering in another day with no guilt.

green lentilsToday, the hard green lentils sitting in the jar for almost a year call to me,
“We have been ignored too long.  You must find something for us.  We are tired of sitting here on the shelf, unused, drying up.”
If the dialogue sounds familiar, dear Reader, you must be a woman, or at least a reader of Chick Lit, or Mills and Boon, or Jane Austen…  In the lingo of Critical Theory, we see what we have been acculturated to see.  Put simply, our eyes see what they have learned to see over time and place (not always consciously or willingly).  Oh yes, we can unsee what we do not want to acknowledge.  That green lentil needs to be married, have a fiery romance with water, finishing up a soupy garlicky dhal on white rice.

Bitterly green and resistant as they appear, I wonder if I can render them eatable.  Anyway, I lay out a whole head of garlic, small sambar onions (shallots) that I had picked up on a recent trip to Bangalore, a big juicy carrot, a crisp green pepper, and red village tomatoes.  That array makes me feel more in control, able to tackle those green lentils.  I decide to sauté a couple of fiery green chillies with the garlic and shallots, adding in the carrot, tomatoes and green pepper in that order while the lentils meet their fate in the cooker.

Hah, the lentils rebelled.  They expand, absorb all the water around them, burn the cooker.  Scraping out their charred mess, I consign them to organic waste that we use for manure.  Green lentil mess feeds the garden shrubs, not me.  Suttee, sati, was it? [http://adaniel.tripod.com/sati.htm; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/aug/23/gender.uk1] I cook in culture, history, gender, race, class, and caste.  Caught in time, the historicity of my petty disaster points, if I may see, say, and write it, to other not so petty her/stories. Caught in my cooking, unable to do more, I live my choices as a woman in India, this village Puttaparthi, this ashram, this NOW.

Alone in the ashram room with my tattooed body, my dyke hair that I cut myself, I hear the chanting of the Hindu Vedas resound in the air.  Enmeshed, wriggling like a fish in the spiritual romance of sound, I am also part of the his/tory of violence and repression of women: Indira Gandhi, the dictator, Sita, the virtuous wife of god Sri Rama, as well as the unnamed med student raped on the Delhi bus, the four year old raped and thrown like garbage on the road.  Our choices mesh, we create willy-nilly her stories of living, violence, resistance, loneliness, and yes, sudden stupid content.

Should cooking be any less fraught, less coded, less dangerous than any other activity?  I must return to my walks, wreaking my ire on the unsuspecting, resistant pebbles, tripping over tarmac; I wreak my internal disturbances on my own fat self while glaring at the men to keep away.  I am contained by this world, though I may contain multitudes, to misquote Walt Whitman.  “Song of Myself” ends this little exegesis on cooking–

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.I wonder where they get those tokens,
Did I pass that way huge times ago and negligently drop them?
–from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman,
http://www.daypoems.net/plainpoems/1900.html

Cold! the physical toll of memory

Last night, sleep was slow in tendering its benefactions.  Perhaps my mind, by the end of the day, had turned again to worry at human interactions with my aunt and others like her.  I find that the more I try to help people out, funding their lives with mindless money, the more they look down on me.   They become the ones doing me the favor, they allow me, from their inherent goodwill, to bankroll their lives and indulgences.  Accepting the moolah, they put themselves on a pedestal. Hurt, I bark and growl, tuck my tail between my legs and remove my scrappy presence.

coldIn time, anger appears.  “Why should they get away with it?  I’ll keep them on their toes,” I vow to myself.  And so, in some part, I do, but in the doing, I tear my mind apart.  I fall ill, perpetual colds rack my body, the inhaler becomes my succor.  I recover from one attack of the cold virus to succumb to another.  Every morning I turn on the steam machine, bury my head under a blanket, and inhale hot air.  Quarter of an hour later, I reach for ayurvedic nasal drops and squirt medicated oil into my nostrils [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayurveda].   Pain hits my teeth and sinuses, I groan in discomfort and my throat burns with the taste.  Last in the process, I sip hot lime and honey, the sour-sweet infusion counteracts the pungent oil.

The morning runs by with these rituals.   Colds have long been my body’s familiars.  In childhood, my dad’s big white cotton hankies were indispensable: held against my dripping nose, their absorbent comfort got me through my days.  Come the long awaited monsoon, my nose watered in company with the skies.  Dosing me with Erythromycin [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythromycin], my dad was often fellow sufferer.  But, for him as well as I, after each course of the antibiotic, another cold bided its time to attack anew.

My college years in Anantapur and a decade of graduate study in the States granted me some respite.  Over the last decade, however, with Mum dying, and the peri/ post-menopausal years, I have reverted to my childhood self, clutching now not a white hanky but a tissue to my nose.tissue box  Wastepaper bins overflow, and crumpled papers decorate random corners during my worst drips. Though guilty at the waste of paper, I am now addicted to their convenience.  When my nose streams, and I can barely stand upright, the tissues are my tenuous hold on sanity.

During times of stress, I’ve noticed that the colds follow one upon another.  This month, for instance, I’ve hosted three major attacks.  Is it any coincidence that this is the month, I’ve driven down thrice to neighboring Bangalore, in order to check on my aunt who happened to be hospitalized?why-i-keep-getting-colds  [cf. blog that relates stress and recurrent colds:  http://healthblog.yinteing.com/2010/04/14/why-do-i-keep-getting-colds-sinus-and-flu/]   Aunt Devaki, my Mum’s only surviving sister was rushed to CCU in the throes of intense abdominal pain, initially suspected to be the heart, and later diagnosed as gall stones.  After a week’s stay,  my aunt recovered to celebrate her ninetieth birthday at the Old Age Home I’d placed her in.  I was summoned to take her out for lunch:  transport and treat which included her recent favorite, her cousin’s daughter-in-law.  The cousin’s son doesn’t bother to visit her.

His wife, on the other hand, is a regular attendee on Aunt Devaki, in favor because she’s of the Coorg race, fair as the Coorgs are. [check out the Coorgs here: http://coorg.tripod.com/coorgs.html]  Earlier, my aunt has been known to insist on receiving blood transfusions only from a Coorg!   For mongrel, mixed blood me, Aunt Devaki is a relic and memory of Mum’s do-gooding.  Mum was the standby of her older sister, when life didn’t go Devaki’s way.  Dearest Mumso often grumbled at her sister’s airs and graces, but she stood up for her, even when Devaki pissed off my Dad, “I have a right to come here.  It’s my sister’s house.”   Feminist in rhetoric, but parasite in substance, Devaki feels that looking after her is our duty–first Mum, now me.

Every time I visit her, I come down with a Cold once I return home.  Suggestive?  Aunt Devaki is the mistress of manipulators.  With a face whose beauty even at ninety startles people, her looks and regal presence have gotten her through life.devaki  Although nearly penniless, she has numerous servitors who appear magically when prompted, among whose midst I number myself.  Having taken her on financially, a responsibility as memorial to Mum, I am yet periodically beset with childhood belief in her gracious self.  That belief, besieged by her physical reality, doesn’t last long for adult Grie.

I have to take to my heels and run home–to my ashram apartment, the Rain tree, the increasingly unkempt garden,  timid Tippy the bitch, and of course, my watering, suffering nose.

To Sleep with Trees: a small meditation on lives & deaths

To sleep like Rip Van Winkle for a hundred, a million years…and then to wake into the wonder of a world made new.
It’s not the waking but the sleep I crave.
I long to plunge into a deathly sleep, a sleep that transfigures my nascent, waking self.
I would be a changeling, stumbling bravely through a sphere seen anew.
A sleeper who wakes not herself, but another altered eye/I.

neemtreeAs a child, I used to creep out of the back door of the bath room, out to sit under the Neem tree in the night quiet. [http://www.organeem.com/neem_tree.html] Sitting there, I would let the minutes and hours slip away, breathing in the sentience of non-human earth. Way back in the bowels of the house, caught by human anxiety, Mum would hunt for me, “Grie, Grie, where where are you?”

The faint echoes of her voice cautioned me into total still, under the leafy neem scented starlight. Though our house lay in the center of Madras, three roads bordered the bungalow:  our back yard only connected to old lady Achutha Menon’s front yard, separated by a wall and yards of shrubbery.  Mum, moreover, had planted trees all about the compound wall, cutting us off from neighboring lives.

On the ground, seated beneath the Neem, I, small Grie, shared a reality that humans, bustling about their lives, missed. Feeling the earth breathe, the insects bite and rustle, small creatures (rats?) stir about me, I touched G-O-D, unknowable mysterious process that, even then, reassured and brought me curious strength.

Years later, Mum referred to those ‘catatonic’ states of mine. She’d been worried, she said, but Swami put her mind to rest, though he counseled me not to sit alone when he sent me off to his women’s college in Anantapur, about six years down the line.

Dad had died by then, so my mind tunneled into different spaces of grief and loss, crevices disparate from my dark Neem shelter.  In the scrublands of Andhra, I discovered, at the farthermost edge of playing fields, a rocky outcrop that I could sit atop to consider the barren, stony hills.  None of the other girls ventured close, scared off by tales of surrounding graves and their attendant ghosts.  But, the quality of solitude was different: with dad’s death, complexities of adulthood came creeping over my soul, trailing in its wake, romantic fantasies, sexual infatuation, and existential confusion.

Photo on 24-06-13 at 5.52 PM #2Only now, sitting in this little semi-open patio, with the Rain tree’s [Albizia Saman] branches spreading overhead in the green company of shrubby foliage, I wake from the thrall of an unplanned two hour sleep to chanting from the hall, and feel a sudden breath from the child I was.  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albizia_saman]

Now, with Dad, Mum, Swami departed into the past–
now, stressed by a recent encounter with my ninety years’ old aunt who revels in the busy, petty minutiae of human interactions,
who still plays one human against the other,
have I woken to unspeaking child’s awareness.  Now, the little dog lies on the doorstep, a squirrel dashes from shrub to tree, a butterfly hangs from a flower, and only the gusting breeze bustles.

My father died in his fifty-third year, the earliest of my loves to depart, Mum in her seventy-fourth, and mysterious Swami in his eighty-fifth.  I envy my Dad his exit at the height of his human achievements.  Me, I’m 52.  My soul, and body, tire of interaction, I long for sleep in the bowels of the earth, next to the Rain tree’s roots.
Saman1744

Literate encounters: rural women and educated me

Deeply suspicious of institutions and organizations, but unable to rest easy with my own little nest-egg, I look around for folks I can help in any way– financially mostly, but also with a bit of personal involvement.  Here, in Puttaparthi, most village folk (even those in their thirties) are either illiterate or literate just enough to read labels with difficulty, having just scraped through high school, about tenth grade.  Exploring various definitions of ‘literacy,’ commonly accepted as the skill of reading and writing, I came upon the following by the U.N.:

“[This] view, responding to recent economic, political and social transformations, including globalization, and the advancement of information and communication technologies, recognizes that there are many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes, personal circumstances and collective structures”….‘Literacy’, throughout history and across societies, has encapsulated a varying range of skills and erudition, but its antonym, ‘illiteracy’, has always been synonymous with disadvantage. It is this definition that, perhaps, elucidates the concept best.  [http://www.unric.org/en/literacy/27791-the-evolving-definition-of-literacy]”

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Even here, in rural, backwoods Rayalseema, I commonly notice all manner of villagers talking busily into their mobile phones.   Sitting on a bullock cart, jogging along with a stack of hay on tarred roads, the ‘driver’ wields his mobile phone while he urges on the skinny, underfed bullock.  Inside the ashram, too, I’ve come across maids and  sweepers chatting importantly on their phones.  I knew that they probably weren’t ‘literate’ but couldn’t figure out how they managed until a ‘dhobi’ or washerwoman wanted my phone number.

woman phoneSaraswati fished out her phone, laughed, and asked me to enter my number.  “How are you going to know that its my number when you want to call me,” I asked. She told me that she’d assign a symbol to my number, so that she’d know it was me.  Showing me different symbols, dots, dashes, asterisks, she reeled off the names behind the numbers.  Remembering symbols is impossible for me, my educated mind and memory used to the alphabet, but Sarawati had formulated her own personal code. Living here, I’ve learned not to label folks easily, even ‘literacy’ becomes an unclassifiable spectrum.  As in the UNIC quote,  strategies like Saraswati’s are part of “”many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes…”

Although I’m not actively searching for girls who want to study further,  I stumble across quite a few without looking, given where I live.  In Rayalseema [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayalaseema] a district that suffers perennial water scarcity, the villagers eke out a bare living from seasonal crops.  Thanks to its founder, the ashram provides free schooling, but getting into college after that is impossible for the villagers as they possess only very basic English language skills when they make through from high school.  atp-frontOffering free education, Swami’s women’s college in Anantapur nearby, is now part of a whole university.  Ironically,  the standard of literacy required is beyond the locals.  In fact, I studied for 5 years in his college, and graduated with a Master’s which got me free education in the States!

The villagers, or original inhabitants of Puttaparthi before it became a bustling tourist town thanks to Swami, depend on the infrastructure of the ashram (and its attendant free hospitals, colleges, schools, canteens) for employment outside that of the land.woman farmer   The ashram proper employs a number of yard sweepers (also block janitors), a sweeper for each block of tiny apartments.  Most of them have been around for years.  Hard as the job is, it comes with benefits, and so prized, often passed down through generations of the same family–mother to daughter/ son, or even husband to wife.  Non-gender specific, the women actually outnumber the men.  Gangamma has been doing the job for years, arriving in the ashram at dawn, going home to her house in the village for lunch, and returning in the afternoon for another stint until about 5 pm.

Technically she’s not assigned to my block, but on the ground floor as I am, with a little private garden, I’m a face made familiar through the years.  During festival seasons, especially when Swami was alive, the place gets a noisy influx of pilgrims from the outlying areas.  Out for a spree with the excuse of religion, farm workers themselves, they don’t look for toilets but search for any semi-private spot to squat and do their business, more the women than the men.  At such times, I keep a wary eye out for such offenders.   Sure enough, a couple of years ago, I found a fetid pile of human feces in the corner, under some plants. At a loss about how to clear it up, I was glad to see a trio of sweepers cleaning up my neighbor’s yard in the absence of the regular guy.

sweepersNoticing me and my quandary,  the women wished me and assured me they would deal with the mess.  Curious to see how they would clean up human excrement, I hung around.  The two who had assured me most vociferously continued to sweep, but the third, the one I was least acquainted with, the quietest of the lot, disappeared.  Returning with a cardboard carton in hand, she proceeded to flatten it and, then, neatly swept up the stinking pile and deposited it in the waste bin.  Impressed with her wordless efficiency, I asked for her name and tipped her well.  That was how Ganga (the ‘amma’ is a suffix denoting formality, i.e. Gangamma) and I came to be acquainted.

After that incident, I would run into her sweeping elsewhere while returning from my morning walks.  Always quiet but smiling, she wished me on sight.  Dark and sloe-eyed, I find her the epitome of Indian womanhood, her hair oiled and coiled up in a bun, clad in a simple working woman’s sari.  Every so often, when the irregular worker assigned to my block failed to show, she appeared to sweep out my yard, so we got acquainted over a couple of years.  But, returning after a gap of two months from my Goa hiatus, I saw her no longer until she turned up at my door, suddenly one day.  Immersed in my writing, I was impatient, and told her to return when I was free.  Only later, when my composition was done did her words and appearance hit my consciousness, prompting a wave of guilt.  Teary eyed and hair in disarray, she’d appeared to tell me that her mother had died with no warning, just fourteen days after the death of her father who’d been ailing for some time.

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Kicking myself for my selfishness, I inquired after her when I came upon the other sweepers.  Thankfully Ganga showed up to meet me again, and I could hear her out.  Weeping inconsolably, she repeated that the death of her mum had been a total shock. Bedraggled though she looked,  she’d returned to work.  In the weeks that followed, her face grew lined and she lost weight in her grief.  There no way for me to console her, I could only tell her that she should watch herself, that time would heal the pain a bit, even if, at the moment of loss, sadness overwhelmed all thought.  Diffident in the face of her loss, I presented her with a couple of my own mum’s saris and some money, poor consolation.

Over the troubled course of a month, Ganga continued disturbed and weary, but slowly her face regained its old contours.  Approaching me again, she said that she wanted her daughter to meet me.  Her daughter had recently finished high school, and wanted now to go on to study for her intermediate,  a two years interim course before graduate college.  Wondering if her daughter liked studying, and if her grades were any good, I questioned Ganga, unwilling to assume responsibility on hearsay.  “She wants to study further.  She’ll be the first woman to study beyond school in our family.  Anyway, please amma, I want her to meet you.  She looks like you, her nose, her face.”

I acquiesced.  What else could I do?  I warned Ganga, however, that I wouldn’t finance her daughter’s studies completely, although I could help out a bit if I thought the girl was serious.  She smiled at me:  “I’m not asking for any financial help.  I just want her to meet with you.”  So I did.

Pramila, her daughter arrived with together with Ganga,  and two small, restless kids, one her younger sister, the other a cousin.  In India, the concept of family is rather different from the West:  even cousins are commonly referred to as sisters or brothers. Until they clarify the relationship for me, I routinely get misled and assume they are all part of one family.  Although Ganga has four daughters, one older than Pramila and the last younger, she’d brought her niece along rather than her other two kids.  Looking far younger than her years, Pramila was quiet when I questioned if she was the oldest:
“Hey Ganga, I wanted to meet your oldest daughter, the one who is going to study.”
“My eldest is at home, my family has decided that she shouldn’t continue.  She’ll stay home and look after the house when I come for work.  Anyway, her eyes are weak. She wears spectacles.”
“But, glasses are not a big deal, I wear them too.  I’ve been wearing glasses since I was eight years old.”  I assured her.
Ganga remained unconvinced, “When she was about 10, the doctors slit a stye on her eyelid.  Then, they told me that she couldn’t see too well, that she’s to wear specs.  It’s better she remains at home.”
“What are you planning for her? Marriage?”

Source: The Times Of India Group © BCCL

Source: The Times Of India Group
© BCCL

She nodded hesitantly, “Pramila’s the one whom we want to send to Anantapur for further studies. My younger brother is checking colleges now. They ask for a capitation fee* of about 2 lakhs (ie about 200,00 rupees), then we pay fees of about forty thousand.”  [on the controversy about capitation fees charged by colleges and schools for entrance in India, see http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/keyword/capitation-fee/featured/4 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitation_fee ]
“What subjects do you want to take for your major?” I ask Pramila who looks totally out of it.
Like a parrot, she responds, “CEP.”
girl studentsI’ve no idea what the letters stand for, so I ask her to explain and learn they stand for “Civics, Economics, Politics,” one of the majors possible for an intermediate degree. On questioning Pramila if these are her favorite subjects, or the ones in which she gets the highest grades, she replies in the negative. Her cousin, studying for a degree in Anantapur at present, has told her she should choose this major.
“What do you want to do after this?”
“I’ll go to TTC.”
More initials, here they stand for “Teacher Training Center.” And at the Center, what is she training toward? A degree, a diploma, a certificate? She doesn’t know. Is the major relevant to entering TTC? She doesn’t know. “My brother has told me,” is her invariable response.

Gradually, I get her to come out of the shell of wordless disinterest, goading her with questions on her favorite subjects, on the papers she written best in her exams. Pramila has given me the certificate of her overall grade in school finals, a C-, but she doesn’t know her individual grades in different subjects. Finally, she admits that she feels that she’s done best in Physics and Biology. Surprised by that, I ask her to meet me again. After she checks, she’ll know for sure the subjects she’s done best in, and I’m curious if they tally with her own estimation. Poking her further out of her shell, I prod,

“do you want to end up doing housework even after your studies? If you don’t have a goal in life, if you don’t decide where your interests lie, and just listen to your brother, or, later, your husband, what is the point of your parents spending so much money on you? You’ll be the first woman in the family to do further studies, you shouldn’t let your parents or yourself down.”

Unfortunately, without proper guidance academically and emotionally, there’s an all too real possibility that Pramila could end up later in life as a maid or a sweeper.

Graduating from an ‘English medium’ school, Pramila doesn’t speak English, not even broken English. When I speak in English to her, I’m not totally certain that she understands me. But, by the end of the visit she’s more animated, and promises me to talk to her cousin, go to the Teacher Training Center in Anantapur, and to check her grades for individual subjects. I don’t set too much store by these promises. I’m not sure how long the enthusiasm will last, though Ganga assures me her daughter will meet me again. At the last I spell out the word g-o-a-l to her, explain what it means, and tell that she has to define some goals in life for herself.

Artist: Loui Jover

Artist: Loui Jover

I’d like to help further her education, but only if she will help herself, will attempt to become a woman who thinks for herself, and works towards some (any) goals in life. Motivation is hard to sustain in her circumstances. I doubt that Pramila will come by, but pray she will!

FAT comfort: wrestling with the image police

What’s happened to you, you’ve ballooned!big wonder woman

The ‘tactful’ remark greeted my hesitant foray into the garden after a self confinement of nearly 5 months in my apartment.  On venturing outside, I was only too aware that the garden lies in the epicenter of the ashram, subject to the sundry looks of passers-by, self advertised spiritual seekers. Ironically, the comment had issued from one of the longtime residents, hardly a slim woman herself.

The community had gone through an upheaval with the death of its founder 5 months earlier, and we were still reeling from sensational revelations of hidden wealth, silent immediate thefts by the managing council, and speculations about the true date of his death. [see for eg. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/more-gold-found-in-sathya-sai-baba-s-ashram-in-puttaparthi-116432http://www.ndtv.com/topic/sathya-sai-central-trust; ] Unable to socialize, gossip, or add to the rumor mill, I’d shut myself up in my room. But, my room lies in the eye of the storm, behind Swami’s erstwhile residence, itself next to the big hall of worship where the 12 day death rituals were conducted–I could elude none of hysteria.

I’d lost the three of them over them over these 50 years of my life–Dad first when I’d just turned 15, Mum next, four years after my return from the States, and now, Swami two months into my 50th year. Menopausal, hurting with grief, I couldn’t take the socio-spiritual hubbub. So, for five months, I stayed within my little apartment. A box really, but one Swami had personally gifted to me just two years before he died. A prescient talisman, the room was simultaneously my protection and an object of envy, a double on the ground floor occupied by a questionable single feminist when whole families occupied a single.

How did the time of self immuration pass? Times of depression or great grief are periods of hibernation for the soul. The body may ache from lack of exercise, but the spirit needs silence and solitude to nurse itself back into human interaction. Menopause, lack of exercise, over-eating, all played their role: I knew I’d ballooned up.

But, still mentally vulnerable, that unthinking comment by a sista, a self-promoted white sari clad seeker, triggered my angry response, “Hey, you’re not so thin yourself. What gives you the fuckin’ right to comment on others?” Of course, she was righteously offended, unable to comprehend my anger or its cause. To her way of thinking, the remark was merely a casual joust, to me it was an insensitive blow to my already shaky psyche. I’d had to summon up my willpower and courage to go outside, into the glare of human interaction. Perhaps I unconsciously sought the friction of social intercourse that the scar tissue of ill-healed grief might toughen up?

Anger has always been my defense, armor to withstand the blows of the world. angryblackwomanWhere other folks cry, I scream. I throw tantrums. I used to break glass and crockery, tear up clothes, smarting from social hurts I couldn’t explain even to myself. “You’re oversensitive, you read too much into things,” friends and acquaintances advise me. But I’ve never been able to figure at what point sensitivity crosses over into the prohibited area of over-sensitivity.

Unfortunately, in order to be a productive, socialized, civilized human, this knack of differentiation is a pre-requisite!

Patch (for sale) by artist karapassey

Patch (for sale) by artist karapassey

Fat is chain-mail too, a sheath both defensive and aggressive. [on a life changing book, see http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/04/09/fat-is-a-feminist-issue-2/ ]  Right from childhood, I’ve been plump, overweight, at one point even labelled obese by the school doctor, a family friend.  I remember my mum outraged by the word, “obese, what a word to use.  She’s not obese!”  So, the very first time I heard the word, it was an insult, an affront to parental nurturing.  Looking up the word, I took in its connotations and cringed.  That was the beginning of fat guilt:   I was the culprit in my obesity.  My mum consulted our family doctor after that report about my ‘obesity,’ and he put me on a diet.  It didn’t work.

Obesity, however, didn’t come in the way of my activities.  I played throwball, basketball, netball, even tried hurdling.  Inclined to sports, and addicted to swimming, I continued stubbornly overweight.  And obese I grew up–through my troubled teens, my father’s death, my college years in Anantapur, through grad school in the States, and my return to India and the ashram.   It took my Mum’s death to make me lose weight.  I walked miles each day, worked out frenziedly between times sitting in the big hall for Swami’s darshan.  Appropriately enough, that was the time my sexuality made its presence anew after a decade of dormancy. I wonder if such sexual hunger at time of loss is a reaffirmation of life force, the urge to the species to continue to propagate its kind.

Crossing the forty watershed, I looked much younger than my age.  It had nothing to do with weight, however–I’ve never looked my age thin or fat.  angry black womanNow, at 52, I still don’t look my age, fat though I thankfully am.  Looking young, to me, is more trouble than its worth. I’d rather look my age if not a little older: youthful looks often encourage patronage, particularly by the men. I still suffer from the occasional male follower, at a stage when sexuality is more trouble than it’s worth. How did I regain my weight and recover the self I’m most comfortable with? [see a wonderful post on self image: http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2010/01/feminism_and_fa]  A torn knee ligament which the aches and stiffness of menopause only made more painful, Swami’s death–the last of the trinity I love–and the accompanying depression/ grief.  So here I sit, typing these words, too big for the world as ever.  I’m out of the agoraphobia of intense loss, go for regular walks early morning, work out with weights, but I’m a big mama.

After 52 years of being obese, with a skinny interim of maybe 5-6 years, I have at long last learned to rejoice in my big self.  Too large for the social spaces I’m in now, and spaces like academia that I moved in earlier, I am the right size for me.  Men can’t easily talk down to me, either physically or intellectually, nor do most women. [see also– http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/11/gender.society ] Thin socialized women find me unsettling:  loud, big, and rebellious, unable to conform.  I make my friends uneasy, as I really have not much yen for company.  My solitary self does not revel in too much interaction.  [on singleness today, see http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/09/going-solo-klinenberg/http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/04/16/120416crbo_books_heller]. Most comforting now, I’ve begun writing again, taking up as much space as I want in words and letters.

I spread myself easily: I am fat enough for comfort.

dirty words, filthy mind, profane body–reclaiming language & god

Women porters Madras 1920s

Women porters Madras 1920s

In that never never time of memory, a decade ago when Mum was alive and Swami too, I worked at the Western Canteen, pre-dawn, mornings, afternoons, and evenings. A dog used to accompany me there, leave me to work and sometimes even appear to take me back. Pappu was my Mum’s dog, really, but she took it upon herself to assume responsibility for me.  (Who owns whom?)   Eddie, a co-worker seeing Pappu’s solemn duty, joked, “one man and his dog.” Without thought, I reacted, “No Eddie, love, its one woman and her bitch.” Eddie found my come back apt, but funny, as I did too at the moment. But, my own quip remained with me through the years: unconscious knee jerk reaction to language and its sexism.

Now, when I’m writing this blog, putting words down after a silence of almost twenty years, I find that words like ‘bloody’, ‘period’, ‘bitch’ run through my sentences. I wonder at myself that I gravitate instinctively toward words or phrases resonating with women’s sexuality. An Young Woman in Sari, Rides BicycleGrowing up an overweight child prone to tantrums, fits of withdrawal, I had my parents worrying about my mental health.  [See Mollow’s article that looks at fat discrimation even in the queer community: http://bitchmagazine.org/article/sized-up-fat-feminist-queer-disability] Getting my periods early didn’t help either, nor that I possessed a shrieky witch’s voice too loud for the surroundings.  These traits added to a mind that couldn’t take anything for granted meant that I invariably got singled out.  Trouble followed me around.

My discovery of Audre Lorde, when doing my doctorate in the States, lifted a weight off me.  Reading “The Uses of Anger” and the poems in “The Black Unicorn” and meeting Lorde herself gave me a role model. I fancied Lorde literally bulging out of the confines of white racism and academic restrictions with her big black lesbian body.  She thrust the physicality of her black, woman’s body in the midst of white anemic writing. Lorde Myself too big, too loud, too argumentative for my Indian context–the well behaved, upper class schoolmates, or conversely, the conservative, modestly hindu collegemates in Anantapur–I rejoiced to be one among the big, black women I met.  [On going against the norms of modest Indian womenhood, read http://thefeministwire.com/2013/05/walking-the-tightrope-good-indian-girls-race-and-bad-sexuality/ ]  Called “nigger” by my black friends, I learned the painful ironies of that sisterhood.

Running out of beer late one night, Jackie, my girlfriend, and I walked down to the corner store only to be told by the lone clerk that we couldn’t buy alcohol after midnight, although we knew that the cut off was 1 pm.  When Jackie and I suggested that he wasn’t selling us the liquor because we were black, the store clerk was on the verge of pushing the panic button, thinking he was about to be attacked by us.  Merely the sight of our skins signaled aggression to him.  Where then is the difference between black and brown.  Did Indian culture and upper classness distinguish me any from Jackie, my  tough black ghetto woman?

A month or so later, Jackie left me, jailed for shooting a dealer when he intruded on her territory.  I wonder if I’d been around in that park whether I’d have been arrested too regardless of my involvement or not. [For a look at internalized racism and its workings, see http://shotgunseamstress.blogspot.in/2012/10/radical-anti-racist-racism-or-rarrrrrrr.htmlanti-socialLater, while writing my dissertation, I wrote of a black/ brown/ colored woman’s, particularly a lesbian’s, “monstrously feminine” body in the convoluted prose of critical theory.  The jargon of ‘high’ theory protected me against the messiness of words, the dirt of description and anecdote, the visceral secretions of women’s cussing.

Growing up, I learned first to lisp English syllables.  Speaking the different vernaculars of Coorg and Tamil communities, Mum and Dad, educated intellectuals both, spoke fluently the language of our colonized past.  Indian English is my first language, and I now dig in the mire of its sexist, racist, and classed legacy.  I speak my woman’s self and body, not to abuse my self but to savor the curious delight of an identity too big for others’ comfort.

But, twenty years down the line, doctorate or no, class markers or no, I am yet prey to a secret guilt that I am too gigantic, too clumsy still for the spaces in which I live and write.  That these negative socio-cultural attitudes persist, internalized somewhere in my psyche, is proof of the immense power of cultural norms.  I fight against these dictates of womanliness, but in moments of self-doubt they rise like specters to haunt me.  I shut myself up in an ashram room, go for walks only at first, faint light, and speak to hardly anybody but Tippy.  Grie Verd, the my private childhood nickname for myself fits snugly into the “malformed series of noh masks” by a Japanese artist in a collision of non-white hurting(s).  Apt indeed that I find these malformed faces/ masks beautiful! [see ‘About’ page: https://quiescentbeing.wordpress.com/about/]

And what about my clumsy quest for otherness, the ache of longing for some vast awareness that  includes all, animate and inanimate, and judges none?  Any route or religion seems to demand purity, often an ascetic purity involving continual cleansing of humanness–of the dirty woman’s self and body, in particular.  But I’ve been born with a being who hinted otherwise, that total acceptance of the self and universal process leads, will nilly, to surrender.  Surrender which rejoices in just being, worship and adoration without mind,  a sense of arbitrary divinity—I am tumbling through Generation-Organization-Destruction, process, entropy, cosmic chaos, multiverses.  I live in god. I am everything and nothing—loud, big, messy, dirty, bloody, slutty, womanly, angry micro in the macro cosm.

"Venus Variation Large" Artist-Susan Grabel

“Venus Variation Large” Artist-Susan Grabel