As a child, I never understood why I got condescending looks when I called curry ‘gravy’ or chutney – ‘relish’. I’d like to attribute my ignorance to the fact that my father ensured that I lived a very sheltered life, one in which I would never come in contact with localities or ever feel the necessity to converse with them.
I vaguely remember a snippet of when my grandmother used to talk to me in Malayalam when I was 6 or 7. He barged into the room and firmly told my grandmother that English and only English is the language that had to be spoken at home. Dad has always been a very calculated and private person. He made sure that the schools I went to had some form of economic homogeneity when it came to the other pupils I would be interacting with.
I have never met his side of the family even once in my 21 years of growing up. The one time that I did stumble upon a photo of him and his sister (I never knew he had a sister) was while going through his belongings (since he confiscated my Gameboy)
He caught me in the act and snatched the pale, withered, greyscale photograph out of my hand. Even to this date, I have never seen my father look as terrified as he did that day. His cupboard now has three separate locks that require three different keys, I would call this an attempt to lock up the past, but let’s say that I metaphorically peeped through the keyholes and figured out why he’s paranoid. That’s a story that won’t be revealed for now or probably will never be revealed, but needless to say, that single word gave me paragraphs worth of explanations as to why I was barred from his past and his family’s history.
I decided to rebel against my father’s wishes and what better way to start than by replacing the bland palate of cheese and herbs that I grew up on with one that I should have grown up on.
It took me years to go against the lifestyle that my parents brought my brother and I with. After all, damage can only be caused after years of questioning, decision making and sliding out of that pretty veil of ignorance.
I recall my first home cooked meal or rather the extent that my memory would allow me to remember. I was 5 or 6 and my mother had spent hours in the kitchen stirring the Arrabbiata sauce in a vessel that was gifted to her by my elder cousin who came down from Italy to visit a few months ago.
She would hum under her breath in a melodic manner “One churn, two churn and three without any burns”. This instigated my curiosity and I remember hopping onto a stool and peeking into what seemed like pellets of green submerged repeatedly by waves of red crashing rhythmically against the sides of the vessel with every single perfectly performed churn.
I thought she was the evil witch from Hansel and Gretel who had planned to cook Hansel in a pot after he was made chubby enough. I pinched her arm softly because I could not reach her ears and asked her “Mama, you are not going to be bad and eat me, right?”. She just laughed and I wasn’t convinced. She steered away from me and lifted up a smaller vessel that was boiling next to the one containing the Arrabiata sauce (maybe boiling the fingers of many children.)
I felt a pang of fear in my chest at the sheer thought of my mother hacking away the poor fingers of unsuspecting children. I could have sworn that one of those fingers looked like they belonged to my younger cousin, Varun because of how tiny it was compared to the rest. I asked her “Mama, whose finger is that?”. This annoyed my mother. “Mone! Thos-” , she paused before she could complete her sentence and for a second it looked like she had committed a sin so terrible that she would have earned a one way ticket to hell.
She gathered her bearing up real quick and reverted to her state of annoyance. “Sid, those aren’t fingers! That’s penne pasta.”. Before I could question her on what Penne meant, she ushered my grandmother who had just entered the kitchen to keep me entertained in the living room.
I don’t remember how long it took my mom to prepare the Penne Arrabbiata but once my helping was laid across a dainty little china plate, it did not look as gruesome as I thought it would. The fingers looked appetizing and the sauce, which looked like a bloodbath in its infancy stage seemed to have mellowed down with a sense of unity with the pellets of green that were being drowned when I last saw them. They were now floating in a harmonious manner on the surface. I grabbed the fork that was on the right side of the plate and wolfed it down as fast as I could.
All I remember is that it tasted tangy and was mildly spiced. I loved it. This was on a Sunday which meant that like every other boastful child, I was gloating about my mother’s cooking at school on Monday. A good number of the kids in my class didn’t understand what I was even saying, and I thought it was because I miss pronounced Arrabbiata as “Ariatata”
Some of them would just scuff their noses up in the air and say “My Ammachi makes the best Idli and Sambar” or “My mother’s Dosa is better, it’s so round-round and hot-hot”. They would then end up quarreling with each other about whose mother was a better cook. I had nobody to argue with or impose my opinion that my mother’s Penne Arrabbiata was better than theirs. I felt isolated, almost like a half-eaten snickers bar amidst packaged bars of Cadbury on a shelf.
After a while, the conversation changed to Pokémon & Digimon, and my sense of belonging returned for the rest of the day. The economic homogeneity with my peers may have very well existed, but cultural homogeneity? Far from it.
Time took its toll and I progressed into teenage with acne, poorly patched facial air and an almost non-existent growth spurt. I passed through my 10th grade board exams with flying colours. I believe that it was around this period that my parents realised that they could no longer pursue their ideology of economic homogeneity.
A few weeks before I had to collect my application form for a college, my dad urged me to go for a drive with him to the photo studio to get a few passport sized photos of myself done. I was quite suspicious because my dad and I normally don’t go out together unless it’s with Mama and Dhruv for a family dinner outing.
Besides, I normally go out on my own to get my passport sized photos done, so my father’s sudden interest caught me off guard. After he kept plodding me repeatedly, I gave in and we both went to the nearby photo-shoot booth at around 2:30. The photo-booth was a grim looking shack with paint peeling off its walls and a lopsided rusted board with the faded words “Click photo” which indicated its purpose.
The owner of the booth smiled at me out of recognition and asked me his usual question which was layered with the condescending “Ninage Kannada gottideya?”, I just gave him a weak smile of shame (I’ve learnt that this tactic normally softens the urge of a proud localite to take someone’s case for not knowing their mother tongue)
However, my father decided to speak up in my defence, this was the first time I ever heard my father speak in Kannada, at least in front of my own eyes “Illa, avanige English matra gottu” shot back my father with complete pride surging through his voice.
The owner was so taken aback by my father’s presence that he stood up from his chair and placed his plate of Ragi Muddhe with curd and vegetable gravy on the table, almost like a sign of respect to his fellow Kannadiga. While the owner’s glances were shifting repeatedly between my father and I, almost in some desperate bid to find commonness in our physical features, I was fascinated by the ball of Ragi Mudhe on his plate.
It looked like a rolled-up lump of play-dough that was partially dipped in yellow paint. Even though my knowledge about Indian food is criminally limited, I knew what Ragi Muddhe was as it brought back a distant memory.
I was in the 9th grade, where most of my classmates either ate at the tuck shop and some carried lunch from home which had cafe delicacies like burgers, sandwiches, and steaks. Midway through 9th grade, a girl called Anusha joined my class, she quietly isolated herself from the rest of the class and sat in the first bench while all the “cool kids” sat in the back and the brainiacs sat in the middle rows to well, avoid Anusha.
She had a set of pigtails which were of equal length and her skin looked stitched with the finest cells of melanin since it was flawless without a single scar and had a dim shine. The teacher of the class called me aside after the first hour passed and in a sugarish manner said “Hey, try talking to Anusha, she comes from a different background, show her around campus and try being her friend. Make her feel welcome.”
Naturally, I did not want to go against any form of authority and when the bell rang for lunch after the remaining 3 hours passed. I walked up to Anusha’s desk and introduced myself to her. I could tell she felt intimidated and was probably not used to conversing with boys. She then slowly lifted her head up and introduced herself as well. As we continued talking, she started warming up to me, I noticed that she kept mixing up Kannada and English words but was trying very hard to have a conversation with me.
I figured she felt like an outcast in a class where everyone could only speak in English and she only knew Kannada. She told me about her parents, her father worked as cobbler and ironed people’s clothes for a living while her mother was a housewife.
She lived in, Chikkanayakanahalli a village that was barely two kilometers from our school. I tried pronouncing it but my anglicized tongue broke it down into two words: ‘Chicken Halli’, she giggled a bit and said ‘Chikk-ana-ya-kana-halli’ in an attempt to break it down for me and but that too was frugal.
Midway through our conversation, I realised that the bell for the next hour was going to ring and that lunch break would get over, I told her I’d grab myself a sandwich and be back but she insisted that I stayed with her and shared her lunch. She pulled out a set of steel cases and inside one of them was a lump of Ragi Muddhe and in the other a certain vegetable curry with drumstick and peas latching onto the drumsticks as some form of raft for life support.
I was absolutely clueless about how to eat this, “Do I use a spoon? Do I use my hands? Do I chew this or leave it to melt in my mouth? Anusha performed a quick demonstration by swiftly cutting a small chunk out of the lump of Ragi, quickly rolling it with her fingers and then dipping it into the steel case containing curry. “Don’t chew, you will die off” she warned me. I did die off because I ended up chewing it.
She giggled again and called me a nice boy. Anusha left class within a week of joining and perhaps it was because of how she felt like she did not belong or her identity could not bend to the laws of the environment she was encased in. I do not know here she is today although one of the kids in class said “That halli girl? I think I saw her walking to her small house when the bus I was in passed through her village. Hahaha, she would not last, I knew it.”
“Saar, avanige Kannada kalsi”, my walk down memory lane was disrupted by the gruff verbal guffaw of the photo-booth owner. Ultimately, my father decided to shift the conversation towards getting my passport sized photos. I did not understand a word of what was happening and just like the day I felt like an outcast for being the only one who ate Penne Arrabbiata in class, the same applied in this situation, except it was because I only knew English while everyone else around me could vocally twirl their local tongue with pride.
After my father and I managed to get my photos clicked he said we had to get a certain certificate done for me. You see, dad and I have not always been the closest of sorts and his lack of participation with regard to the more emotionally inclined sphere of a parent under weighed the monetary sector.
I thought he was referring to the transfer certificate which ma and I had already collected a few days back to which he said it wasn’t that.
He said it was a certificate that was not required by the international schools I went to but was essential for my admission in a state board college.
It still didn’t make sense to me but I knew that if I questioned him further, it would turn into a distasteful situation. I saw my caste certificate on the day I submitted my application form to Dairy Circle college, I still did not understand what it stood for, I thought it was merely for the sake of documentation.
I decided to grab a seat on a nearby bench outside the management office while waiting for my driver to give me a call that he’d arrived at the main gate. There was another chap seated next to me, a fair fellow with jet black hair which smoothly slicked to the side with the right amount of oil, wearing a collared Benetton T-shirt. He seemed to come from a well to do family.
He told me that he came from a public school (I think it was New Horizon) in Indiranagar. I felt at ease while talking to him because I was intimidated by the number of folks speaking in Kannada to each other, I almost categorized him as a friend instantly.
Our conversation shifted from schools and to what our parents do for a living and then out of the blue, he asked me “What’s your caste?”. Thinking that this was nothing too important, I told him. His face fell flat, almost like bread that was rising in the oven and then randomly had every single bit of air punctured out of it.
I was worried and thought I had offended him. He took a hard look at me and scanned my face and then my clothing in utter disbelief. He excused himself and joined the line of several students. I was confused and reassured myself that I did not offend him and that he probably realized it was his turn in line. Denial is the first stage of acceptance.
Summer passed by as quickly as many previous summers passed and I found myself seated in the car with my father. He insisted that he’d drive me to college on my first day. I felt uncomfortable because the few times my father and I did do out together, it normally resulted in a minor tiff turning into an all-out screaming match.
Once the car steered into Dairy circle, he disrupted the silence and told me “Son, make sure you sit with kids who come from your background of schooling, you will feel far more comfortable with them because they will understand you, also, don’t mention that certificate to anyone, not your friends or even your cousin, Varun”
My curiosity got the better of me and despite my brain blaring with warning alarms, I asked him “Why can’t I tell anyone, Pop?”
He did not utter a single word for the first twenty minutes, but the atmosphere in the car changed to an unusual one. Normally, when my dad goes silent when he’s posed a question that challenges his authority, you can feel his wrath inching towards you despite him being a good few meters away, but this time, it was more of an air of guilt, the kind of guilt that wants to confess profusely but can’t find the right manner to tailor its words into a sentence during the heat of the moment.
We didn’t talk till he dropped me at college. That was the last time we ever spoke about caste. I believe that it was in this college that I became aware of caste, there were countless debates with my own intellectually inclined peers over whether reservation was a boon or curse.
I went from being casteless to caste-ignorant mainly because I was in complete denial or wanted to play it “safe”. If only I knew there was no such thing as playing it safe when it came to your social identity.
I decided to abide by my father’s wishes and did not talk to the kids in class who seemed like localities but the few “international school” folks that I crossed paths with were not my type at all and to top it off? I was sniggered at by some of the localities in my class, they would call me Desi-Angrezi.
As a result, I spent a good number of my lunch breaks in those two years either reading or enjoying my Meat lasagna on my own. Those two years in Dairy Circle swiftly blew by with the aid of my video-game consoles, headphones, academic focus and of course, Ma’s Italian and continental cooking.
I found myself applying at another reputed college in Bangalore for a triple major course in English, Journalism and Psychology. Unlike Dairy Circle, this class had a perfect blend of students, almost like the perfect balance between pepper and salt (Dairy Circle had way too much salt for my liking). Nobody asked me about my caste which came to me as a relief but a few of them were fascinated and utterly stunned by the fact that I only knew English and never had Pani-Puri in my entire life.
It took me a while but I slowly grew accustomed to the heterogeneity in my new class and as a matter of fact, also felt the urges to explore the culture that I was barred from as a child. I made a few friends and they took me to a nearby Chaat stall and trust me, my first Pani-Puri felt like someone lit a bijli under my pseudo Angrezi buttocks.
Naturally, I had to keep this all a secret from my parents because the last thing I needed was a long-winded lecture about ‘This is not how we brought you up’ followed by ‘How can you eat such dirty food? Isn’t the food we cook at home well enough for you?’
I believe that it was in my third and final year of college that I could no longer deny nor ignore my family’s history. I took up an Arts & Culture Journalism elective and eventually, the subject of caste became a topic so centric that I could feel my sheltered life breaking down.
First, the roof which guarded me from those polluted rain drops of reality was blown away by a gust of historical facts, the walls which were painted with Anglicization started to develop cracks, the music player speaker in the living room which once played Bon Jovi and Santana now played distorted variants of classical Kannada and Malayalam songs, and the kitchen which once smelled of mama’s Italian cooking was now filled with Anusha’s Ragi Muddhe. The guilt, the guilt started seeping in and it was not the guilt of denial that I was accustomed to but rather one of survivor’s guilt.
Finally, there came a day when our teacher in class finally touched upon casteless upbringing and caste ignorance, everything that I had bottled up: the survivor’s guilt, the anger, the enmity towards my father and my distaste towards my anglicized upbringing that I once took pride upon gushed out.
That very day, I returned home in the evening and when dinner time came along, I quietly seated myself at the dining table along with the rest of the family. That night’s special was a choice between Mushroom cream pasta and Penne Arrabbiata. My mother asked me to help myself but I just shook my head and said that I had packed myself something on the way home for dinner. She was taken aback, this was probably the first time I had refused to eat something cooked by her and my father looked at me curiously and asked “Well, what did you bring?”
I gave him a cheeky smile and pulled up a small plastic bag and inside that bag was something so oily that it left oil stains on the scrap newspaper that it was wrapped up in. My dad’s eyes widened with shock while my mother’s keenly traced the manner in which my fingers slowly unwrapped the newspaper.
It was a Vada Pav, a classic one in all its glory along with its sidekick a shrivelled up green chilli that rolled onto the side. My dad quietly got up and left the table, mumbling something along the lines of “Disrespectful imbecile”, and my mother just sat away from me.
I did not care and as my teeth sunk into the dryness of the bread and the spice of the Vada, a certain flavour of liberation was born.