You know the all-familiar feminist rhetoric? The one that all “modern” women with a life keep rapping about, how society decides their worth based on age-old patriarchal sexism and overlooks every other achievement. So jaded, right?
It seems like a strange coincidence that I should read the final chapters of Educated by Tara Westover while sitting alone in a crowded hall, surrounded by family members who seem, somehow, alien to me. As I stared into my phone, Tara described to me what it was like to be torn away from her family because of wanting to get an education. It would almost seem that her thoughts reflected mine, or perhaps it was so in hindsight. Perhaps it was a passing comment made in jest by one cousin to another, “Of course she is so different now, she wouldn’t talk to us simpletons”. Or perhaps I am paraphrasing, distorting a benign sentence to suit my deranged thoughts, my illogical attempts to justify my self-absorbed exclusion.
Two years ago, when I first started this blog, I wrote a piece that I still believe to be one of my finest. It was about our dog, Brownie, Browns for short. He was sick at the time, on the verge of dying, but came back miraculously due to Mother’s care. Last week, he finally passed after 13 long years – eons in our reckoning, for we cannot remember a time without him. As I watched him being laid to rest in a small hole dug up in our backyard, I couldn’t help but wonder.. How is it that it is the tiny ones that take up the most space in our hearts?
My father has always been a rather distant entity in my life. Always there, but never really. I’ve never exactly been petted by him, as is the case with most fathers in the Indian scenario. But two things that I hold fast to my heart till date are cards and carroms – games I shared with him, and those he excelled at.
It was pure joy to watch him deal a hand, shuffling them this way and that, and even more so for a child. He is a leftie which was unique itself then – the way he held his deck and flung them out in triumph. We’d sit in a circle, Father, his friends, their kids and I, and we’d play for hours even as our mothers chided us in the background. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose; he was great at cheating even. And carrom! He would always make the first strike, hitting the coins exactly at that sweet spot that never revealed itself to me even after years of persistent practice; I can still recall the awe I’d feel when he sent coins flying in four directions with that single strike, bagging four coins at once. Two blacks and two whites. And of course, the red queen would land in his lap in no time.
He had a drinking problem, and managed to gamble away a lot of money. As time went on, responsibilities and liabilities grew and Father quietened down. I cannot ascertain if the change was abrupt or gradual.. He refused to play with us anymore even when we pleaded. Maybe one round of rummy once in a while, but then those too stopped. Even as the drinking came down and he started getting a hold on his life, he was not the same fun person he used to be, and I do remember that I often wished he’d just drink, just so he’d look happy. The cards lay unused and gradually disappeared in the way things do, and the carrom board came to life infrequently when I had a random cousin or friend come over. Cracks developed on the board and the wood pealed at places and it was quietly put away. I too grew up.
A few days ago, some friends came together and organised a little party for Christmas on the roof of their house. Someone brought along a few decks of cards, and as I spread my share in my hand after more than a decade, I was reminded of the rare laughter and fun and frolic that I shared with Father. Fragile times. A huff and a puff and it all fell down. My childhood really was a house of cards.
When I left the party, I held on to a deck and took it back with me. For home.
For the upcoming post graduation counselling, I am bound to turn up with certain certificates from the university last attended. Unsurprisingly, I found myself not to be in possession of said documents and am on a detour to Chennai to obtain the same before the big day, accompanied by Mom. (Any event relating to academic accomplishment is generally viewed as ‘the big day’ in the medical community since such trivial things as weddings hold little importance in our lives)
We reached Chennai at around 6 in the morning and rushed off to Amigo LP’s house to freshen up and reach the university in time to beat any other potential aspirant of certificate acquisition, in accordance with the rules of the rat race. The local trains were not very crowded (I was fooled into thinking this is a normal phenomenon) and once we reached the university gates, we were greeted by a drum-and-horns band committed to blowing the ear drums out of anyone who dared to stay in the vicinity for more than a couple of seconds. I thought this was standard procedure as well. It was only when I saw the banners and floral decorations that I realised the day had been proclaimed a government holiday to commemorate the 100th birthday of the late actor/chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Dr.M.G.R who, ironically, our university happens to be named after.
Our plans thus effectively wasted, we looked to LP to provide us with alternative excitements for the day. After some consideration, we decided to descend upon Thyagaraja Nagar, or T Nagar as it is fondly called, the perennial flea market of the city.
We arrived there in the early hours, just as the shops were being set up. The street undergoes a steady metamorphosis through each day, with the crowd trickling in during the morning and turning into a human high tide by evening that is sure to literally sweep you off your feet to be washed ashore at the feet of whoever happens to be offering the biggest discounts at the moment. On my virginal visit some years ago, two seconds after venturing in I found myself separated from my able friends and being thrust into a textile shop to haggle for a shawl I didnot need or desire. I shuddered at the memory and wondered if Mom needed protection.
Those who have been through my previous posts may know that Mom has lived the entirety of her life taking care of two ungrateful souls, Father and me, and has not had many chances of roaming around and exploring the world outside of our residential area. She’s extremely street smart and carries her own in a way I never could, and was delighted at getting an opportunity to explore whatever little bits of Chennai as could be managed. LP and I decided to make sure she got the most out of it.
Shopping was obviously on top of the list. I treated Mom to her choice of bags and footwear and grabbed some for myself too. But more importantly, it was her taste buds I wanted to entice.
No bustling street in Tamil Nadu is complete without the vendors of varied snacks. Stalls routinely sell boiled corn mixed with butter/chilli as per command and are served as instant healthy refreshment in paper cups. I used to love these during my college days and Mom in turn nodded agreement after tasting her first spoonful.
Other roadside favours are bhel puri, pani puri, assorted ice cream cones, lime soda and rose milk.
Since we were travelling I decided to forego the diarrhoeal roadside option and have safer versions of the same at the famous Adyar Anand Bhavan aka A2B. I chanced upon a delightful strawberry cake there and had my fill while Mom and L happily munched on pani Puri and sipped Rose Milk. The pomegranate juice that I ordered drew another excited ooh! from Mom. She readily tasted and approved of the same too.
It was a very happy day indeed. The icing on the cake were of course our spoils from the day that we managed to procure without drilling a huge hole in my wallet.