Of Bread and Butter, Tea and Feasts

Stir in two spoonfuls of English tea leaves into the boiling hot water and watch the swirling water meet the crimson-brown of the tea leaves as they release their color and aroma into it. Strain the prepared liquid into the china teacup and stir in two teaspoonfuls of cream – three, if thou art feeling generous – and two sugar cubes, please.

Stir, and thou shalt see the creamy white mingle with the hot water as they become one while sugar crystals dissolve within the union only to be tasted when thou raises the delicate china to thy lips. It will be a storm of sensation as thy lips feel the searing heat of the tea, thy tongue tastes the creamy sweetness and thy nose is assaulted by the strong aroma.

When one talks of literature and tea parties together, the first book that comes to mind is undoubtedly — Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. From the Mad Hatter’s tea party, a parody of the Victorian dinning etiquettes, to Alice drinking or eating anything labeled “DRINK ME”, a reflection of the rampant adultery of food at the time, Carroll’s Alice books are full of food references, each carrying a deeper meaning. However, in this piece, though I shall pay a visit to Alice for a cup of tea, it shan’t be by falling through the rabbit hole, but instead through the manner of stepping through the looking glass to visit an old friend who is older, and definitely, more mature.

This maturity is also reflected in the various food references that Carroll makes in the less popular sequel to Alice’s adventure i.e., Through the Looking Glass.

To begin from the first chapter itself, which carries various references to food that convey the changes in our protagonist’s life, we find Alice holding the disgraced Kitty (black kitten) up and, threatening to punish it. Her punishment and the very manner of her assuming authority is a reflection of her own life where she is punished by her Governess. The first punishment that strikes her is to “go without dinner” and what more, since the punishments are being saved up for the end of the year – it would mean going without fifty dinners!

Another thing that is of concern is her reaction to her imagined punishment, “I shouldn’t mind that much! I’d far rather go without them than eat them!”

The above incident indicates a lot to the reader. The idea of punishment has entered the mental arena of young Alice, which indicates that she now knows the distinction between what is an acceptable activity and what is not, and what will, or will not, lead to disgrace or punishment by the authority above her. Hence, she applies the same to the authority below her, which is the animals, since no one in the social power structure— as is the belief—is below a seven-year-old besides animals, a statement made by Carroll which he overturns by making her queen later in the book.

Now, according to Victorian convention for the upper and the upper middle class, dinner was one of the only times of the day when children could socialise with their parents. They had to adhere to the strict behavioral code of conduct and propriety during the meal and, for the rest of the day they were mostly accompanied or taught by their governess or their nannies. Therefore, Alice’s indifference to dinner, on one hand, could indicate her class, for only a spoiled child who had enough food to waste could dismiss it, especially in an age where food was scarce due to population explosion. But on the other hand, it might also indicate her indifference towards, and dismissal of, her family or her parents, for, due to conventions and mostly Victorian attitudes towards children and childhood, she has hardly had any contact with them, and sees them as unimportant, thereby dismissing their presence, which is anyway bestowed on her only during dinner time.

Talking about indifference, we move to the next instance, wherein Alice is thirsty and tired after a run for maintaining the status quo, and is offered a biscuit that is very dry which ends up almost choking her. Quite clearly, even as Alice keeps repeating that she doesn’t want the biscuit, this reflects the larger scene in life— one is hardly given what one wants or in this case even needs, in life.

Alice, in order to appear “civil” accepts the biscuit and, it could be an indication from Lewis’s side (quite fond of parodying Victorian mores), that following the strict civil code of conduct might leave one very dry and uninteresting, but also, could end up choking literally, in this case, their desires and wants, as one is unable to express them – which is what happens in Alice’s case.

Choking leads us to death, which in turn leads us to Alice’s meeting with the Looking Glass Insects who, as mentioned above, also display Lewis’s dislike for conventions and rules. Hence, their inversion or parodying, as happens in this case. The insects look like their names— butterfly is bread-and-butter-fly, “Its wings are thin slices of bread and butter, its body is a crust and its head is a lump of sugar”. It lives on “weak tea with cream” and dies without them. Alice reflects, “that must happen very often” and the gnat replies, “It always happens”.

Carroll through the simple metaphor of food conveys a number of things, and the first amongst these is death. Our protagonist is now old enough to face the reality of life, in the form of facing death and the harsh truth that “it always happens”. The bread-and-butter fly becomes a metaphor for the lower classes, who crawl at the feet of the affluent classes (as the fly does with Alice) looking for their sustenance, and die without it.

Victorian England was also, an age of malnutrition. Death therefore, was common due to population explosion and, while the affluent had as much as they wanted, the poor had to live an impoverished life.

Weak tea indicates that very kind that the poor would take, as enough leaves for a strong one could not be afforded. Bread-and-butter was considered the meal of the poorest of the poor, as they could not afford meat, only bread. The White Queen constantly murmurs “bread and butter, bread and butter” and, the Red Queen’s statement on her remains, “She never was really well brought up…poor thing!”

Though “poor” here is meant for pity, and not “well-brought up” as in the Victorian times was a clear cut offensive statement about one’s class, the White Queen seems to fit in the said category due to a lot of reasons: her untidy, unruly dressing style, her food choice and of course, the Red Queen’s remark.

“Bread and butter” in this case, might hold another significance i.e., to earn one’s bread and butter is to earn one’s living and hence, the White Queen’s obsession with murmuring “Bread and butter” reflects the consumerist society that Victorian England became, especially in the case of someone with power.

Another instance of this is the poem recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, in which the Walrus and the carpenter lead the young oysters away and eat them. Consumerism, Industrialisation and, development led to Urbanization during the Nineteenth Century. The movement of the Oysters from their sea bed i.e., their home, to wherever they are led by the Walrus and the Carpenter reflects the movement of the rural population to urban areas led by the dreams and fantasy that the urban developers led them to believe in.

This fantasy on a larger level also indicates the larger fantasy and dream Alice herself is buying into, much like we as readers do when we buy fiction. The very act of buying a fiction novel is consumerism as stories and ideas themselves have a cost, as many scenes in the book indicate when each word costs a certain sum.

The movement of the Oysters with the Carpenter and the Walrus shows us the fantasy that most of the rural folks bought into. The Urban Classes leached them of their hard work and consumed their very beings in return for meager wages, and this is pointed to in the literal consumption of the oysters by the Carpenter and the Walrus.

The discussion that Alice has with the twins post the recital of the poem is also very interesting. She cannot tell who she likes better— the Walrus because he was guilty (yet he ate more as Tweedledee mentions) or, the Carpenter who ate as much as possible, if not as much as the Walrus (as Tweedledum mentions). This is not just a reflection of blurred lines between good and bad, but is also a likeness of the Upper consumer class who are the ones consuming most of the hard work of the poor. Consuming here also stands for exploitation, which in the Oysters’ case comes in the form of the betrayal of the Oysters’ trust.

Before concluding, it is essential for me to address the final scene of Alice’s feast, which many critics see as a reflection of the tea party from the previous book, but in my opinion, though there are similar elements, a lot has changed, and the most prominent of them is that Alice is the hostess, the queen so to speak, instead of the uninvited guest as in the previous party.

Her reaction “Where is the servant who is supposed to answer the door” shows her growth as a person who realizes the power structures and, the delegation of responsibilities. Her subjects and her fellow queens drink to welcome her. They place her in a position of honour and respect, unlike the previous book’s tea party. Alice’s contemplation about how she wouldn’t know whom to invite indicates an ingrained Victorian etiquette that taught young girls everything from guest list designing, to the making of the dishes.

One can read biography into her introduction to the leg of mutton as Brinda Bose mentions – “King James I ‘knighted’ a loin or mutton at the table of Carroll’s ancestor”. One can also read Alice’s discovery of her own power and strength into the instance when she asks the pudding to be brought back, hence going against a figure of authority – in this case, the Red Queen, who many critics have said represents the governess – by realizing that she too, has power. The cutting of a slice from the introduced pudding on one hand might indicate personification of an inanimate object post-which it becomes difficult to start, and on the other hand it might show the anguish of the consumed object, representative of the poor or even animals who are eaten. Finally, it points to how Alice learns the manner of using her power and how far she can go with it, because there will come a time when the oppressed or the dominated will speak up – in this case, the pudding, which does speak up.

The way Alice judges her guest’s eating and drinking manners, “just like pigs in a trough” shows the parodying of the toast etiquette by Carrol and, an ingrained etiquette code in young Alice who knows the right from the wrong.

The ending of the feast when all hell breaks loose and Alice herself pulls the tablecloth and shouts “I can’t take this anymore!” in the eyes of a Victorian audience would, even today, be a nightmare for any host, indicating a failure. When she screams, one may ask whether “this” is a reference to the madness of her party or the parodying of the Victorian etiquette or, even the Victorian etiquette itself? But Carroll leaves this riddle unanswered like many others littered across his books. But I would have to say that this is a rare case of fantasy hiding behind reality as Alice wakes up, instead of reality hiding behind fantasy, which is the usual case. But I guess, when fantasy starts reflecting a darker and, a more twisted version of reality, it is reality that we return to, so as to create an alternate version.

Through the Looking Glass is replete with such food references that hold a deeper and a darker political-societal meaning, but the word constraint wouldn’t allow you another morsel today.

This doesn’t mean you have to go hungry! You could return to the book and try spotting some of these instances for yourself – that is, of course, until I prepare for you another one of my dishes.

Until then, don’t forget to enjoy whatever you consume.


devika_edit4.pngMorsel
Yours Truly is an ambitious young adult who writes about the only thing they are accomplished in: eating.

Written by Devika
Updates monthly


Column icon by Kanishka
Featured image by Sanna Jain

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The Domestic Orgasm

When you watch almost anything on TV, the slew of advertisements is a constant, unceasing stream; one that annoys you, makes you comment on how a voiceover about a lipstick isn’t actually going to help you sell a lipstick, and makes you think about how much you want to watch the show itself.

The standard template for advertisements for domestic products has stayed the same. Ever since war-ravaged society decided to sell canned foods like they were the bee’s knees, advertisements for domestic products have emphasized the way the product works, how it affects the family, and how oh-so helpful it ultimately is. Where colognes and clothes employ models to look like they want to sleep with you from the word go, domestic products sell you sex in a different way – as the nice, post marital, two-kids-and-a-white-picket-fence kind of sex.

There are strict domains for each gender, each age, and each thought that is related to domesticity. The women are involved in the sale of food products, in kitchenware, in cleaning clothes and basically in the Nirmas of the world. The men take decisions where electronics, travel and furniture are concerned.

The five-armed mother who can cook almost every South Indian dish for one breakfast is meant to make you want her to be your mother, and in the right age bracket – your wife. The idea of the modern mother is sold simplistically – she is the one who knows exactly how to clean the son’s dirty shirt with a “ma ke haath” type of wash in the washing machine, even when she goes to her office. She obviously has five arms, how else is she supposed to cook, clean, work, and rub off the spot of dirt from the kid’s uniform? Every time she chooses a particular cleaning detergent, she will smile and you will just know that this is the right detergent, the right moment, the right household, the right fakeness, the right everything.

The #feminist wife is the one who is the husband’s boss in office, gives him a deadline that forces him to stay at work late, and then comes home and cooks a magnificent meal of spaghetti and other generic delicious things for him. With her professionally cut short hair, pretty sarees and lack of sindoor, she fits right into the modern market. A woman who is the husband’s boss is obviously not going to be allowed the right to be represented with children. The male domain of ambition has to remain separate from the female one, if the kids are to be given a healthy upbringing.

Then there’s your father. The hyper-masculine figure wearing polo shirts and disarming smiles, who always knows about the perfect policy decision, market investment and energy-saving LED bulb (irrespective of mutual funds investment being subject to market risk, of course.).When he smiles at you, you know the house is going to function perfectly. The inverter won’t be using too much power, the fridge will have five stars, capitalism will bless your kids with the best tiffin boxes, and everyone will have good grades because the printer will be able to print high quality pictures for the children’s projects.

The model sanskari kid of every family is always the one who grows taller, stronger and sharper, top his class, and have popularity on his side as well. Young Chintu can’t be compared with Sharmaji’s son, he can beat Sharmaji’s son twice over. He’s the popular Complan boy with an organised study system and the ability to make his projects with the help of his mother.

On the other hand, the girl in pink dresses is the very symbol of innocence and adorableness. The perfect Indian family of nice, North Indian values ultimately features a girl who is studious, cares about her parents and is never seen playing with something like Hot-Wheels cars. She’s a perfect little angel, occasionally financially minded in the way she saves up change in her gulak (Read made in China piggy bank.) We trust poor quality products with finances very easily, you see. No wonder India’s economy is doing so well.

The whole point of an advertisement is to sell you something that is supposed to make you happy. You’re supposed to want that domestic life, need that professional touch to your home along with perfected emotional moments that make joy bubble out of Fantas and Cokes. You’re supposed to want to protect this image of your family, or this dream of your family – own a car, a home, a kitchen which functions very well etc. This is perfection on a plate – and you’re supposed to want it.

There is very little space left for those who don’t want to fit into this mould. For instance unmarried people are never shown, and women who pursue careers which involve travel are always shown in their twenties, before they “settle down.” The suburban perfection, after all, is what we are supposed to aspire for.

Cheers,

T in a Cup


tanviedit

A Cup of T
‘T’ as in me, ‘Cup’ as in tea, ‘Of’ as in preposition and ‘A’ as in article. Bringing you thoughtful rants on TV, books, society and various other things induced by too many cups of ice tea.

Written by Tanvi
Updates every fortnight


Column icon by Sanna Jain
Featured Image by Kanishka

In Conversation With: Rukshana Shroff

This week, we drop in at the Student Welfare Office for a chat with famed-multitasker-and-student-favourite, Rukshana Shroff!

Team Jabberwock: Ma’am, we have a regular feature in which we try to, um, we ask teachers what they are reading in their leisure time and so, uh, Ma’am, what are you reading about in your leisure time?

RS: (chuckles) Do I have leisure time?

So, in the last two-three months what I’ve read – I can’t say I’m reading all the time because most of the time, I just about get the time to read up for my classes, and I spend a lot of time reading up for my classes, but yeah, I think the two-three books that recently I’ve been interested in, linked partly with my teaching and partly not necessarily with that, uh, I find this young African writer, this Nigerian writer, very fascinating – I’ve been saying that in my class also – you know, this girl Adichie, Chimamanda Adichie. I find her very fascinating, I’ve been reading her novel, her short stories, and I think this whole idea of postcolonial writing, writing from a diaspora point of view, I think all that I found in hers, it’s something that appeals to me very, very strongly in her writing. I enjoyed her Purple Hibiscus; I enjoyed her short story A Thing Around your Neck, that’s something I’ve found very fascinating.

rs

Totally different plane, uh, recently I reread The Palace of Illusions* and I was actually reading it with somebody who was – somebody else was reading it at the same time, and said, you know, that I don’t understand the title of this novel, uh, because, okay theek hai, they built that palace, and the palace of illusions, but it doesn’t seem like such a strong title. And I, on the other hand, reading from an English literature perspective – the other person wasn’t an English literature person – so I said, okay, let me see, and then I felt, god, this title is so appropriate because the whole idea of storytelling – there’s so much in that book which a literature person would appreciate, and someone reading it just as a sort of, you know, a retelling of this whole story, uh, may not catch that, because when you read it as a retelling of the story, you feel, okay, interesting insights, but that’s it. You’re seeing the story from a different perspective, you’re looking at this whole business of Draupadi’s point of view, whereas I found that the title and the whole way in which stories, the idea of stories, came up, was very interesting. So I thought that was another very fascinating book that I have read recently – The Palace of Illusions, and basically, um, Adichie, Chimamanda Adichie.

TJ: Ma’am, in the limited time you get, are you able to strike any sort of balance at all between leisure reading and course-work?

RS: Problem is that, you know, my hours are so few by the time I go back from here! So, basically all my reading is done during the holidays, that’s the only time I get to do any sort of extra reading, otherwise, my bedtime reading is my course work. You’re doing two-three plays, and I have a fairly heavy teaching load also, and uh, therefore, especially this semester, because I went back to a lot of things that I used to teach in the past and I haven’t taught for a couple of years in between. So I actually went back to – so I was rereading Beckett, I was rereading things I hadn’t taught. Last couple of years, as it is, the course has been changing, every time we’ve been teaching something different, so I think most of term time teaching is literally reading and rereading and I’m one of those who needs to prepare very thoroughly before every class. And I remember years ago, that one of the teachers – a senior teacher, and I was then very junior – who said, you know, that an Honours lecture, first time you’re doing it, it takes you four hours and the next time you’re doing it, the second time, it takes you two hours, and I used to wonder and I thought how? And now I realize that that’s true! I think both of us** would agree, that there are times when we’re preparing for Honours lectures, that we would actually be up at at twelve and one, and each of us is saying you know, that we have to do this reading, and we have to finish that reading. We had Shakespeare in common with each other, and I know there is this new essay which has come, there is this new article which has come out, so one gets into that, you know, you want to keep updating what you’re teaching, so its not as if I could sit back and say, okay, two years ago, or three years ago, or five years ago, when I taught that, these were the essays. I want to find out what’s going on new, and for someone who is not as savvy on the net, now I’ve become a member of the Online British Council, but it takes a lot of time to get through all that, that takes up a lot of energy and time.

So, a lot of my other reading is this, but as I said, these are two or three of the ones I’ve been recently reading. And of course, one of my all-time favourite ones is To Kill a Mockingbird. I read and reread that book over and over again. Otherwise, I do a lot of, you know, other sort of – I like to read the newspaper from cover to cover, I like to keep up with what’s going on. I don’t get much time to read other magazines and things; I rarely read other magazines. But, earlier, I used to read the Outlook, India Today in detail. Frankly, I don’t even have time for that these days. The newspaper is something I read – a couple of papers everyday.

TJ: We’ve already put up our first feature with SC Ma’am up.

RS: (laughs) SC Ma’am will give you so much more than I can give you. Do show it to me when you put it up!

* The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

** Indicating Kasturi Kanthan, who was also present!

The Sun Had Broken Down

It was as if the sun had broken down on the field, and I wondered whether this was the field Rumi had mentioned. Could it be, trailing along the highway that snaked itself around the waist of a rather murky city, could it be the field where there is no sense of right and wrong? The mustard plants looked like a blurry blanket of leftover fireflies. It looked beautiful. The city was fast approaching on the wheels of the bus. And my mind went back to the yellow. I had seen quite a few variants of yellow. I had seen it in monuments, in the drapes of little puppets, in the sand that made Jaipur. The literature fest was a learning experience. Rhetoric was the main thing that I learnt, along with the art of capturing an audience whose native language might be different from yours, but who owned now a language that had somehow nudged in and become a household tongue, uniting so many.

I learnt a rather hard lesson as well. Literature, or any form of art, wasn’t accessible to all. If you don’t have the means to buy a book, you cannot get it signed by its author. Now, signatures aren’t important, but the validation of realizing that the man to whom you owe your childhood, and your crumbs of imagination, is real, is after all a human being, is important. Imagine seeing J.K. Rowling in front of you and realizing that Harry Potter, although fictional, exists. It exists in her mind and in your heart, and it has shaped you both. But, you cannot reach out to her, owing to commercialisation.

The literature fest had a rather, well, capitalist mentality, in stopping readers from approaching authors.

Oh, so you want to thank your favourite human being on the planet for writing books that re-affirmed your faith in the good of humanity? Buy his book, then we can sell his signature to you, we can sell his time.

Far away from the green crowd, I had to rush into the pink hue that the city promises. And, I was lost. I was lost in archways, in the pillars, in the windows, and the architecture of a city that had been silent throughout its people’s sufferings. It has seen changes, it has seen an Amber built on its hills, and then a Town Hall built alongside the Hawa Mahal. But, it has stood firm, not losing its character, not losing its quirks, not losing its pink post the sunset. It is a colourful city, a montage of the past and the future with high-rises and crumbling forts. It is a historic city, which chronicles how people do not change; their experiences might, but their crux remains the same. It is a city, after all. It does what all cities do – it endures.

The fort of Amber is majestic, and the sun looks like a defiant ball of rage as it tries to melt the granite inlaid in the city steps. It is surreal to think that people ruled there, that the monarchy existed and of the splendour which was at its command. Has anything changed now? Is it democracy what India is nurturing at the moment? And, what of India’s splendor? Is it marked by the number of skyscrapers built in the ruins of an ancient heritage? India’s splendour cannot be like the form of art that is made inaccessible to those who lack the economic agency to own some precious part of it. There is no throne any more, and there should be no single man wielding exclusive power over India’s splendour.

Splendour is in the mustard fields that remind me of a certain movie and a certain man who held the star-soaked sky in his outstretched arms. It is in the yellow of the soil, of the staple that makes every place in this country a household. The splendour is in us too, as we sit in a bus and wait for a city to crash upon us, maybe disliking it for its guts, but still admiring it for the same. There is splendour in this – in being able to recognize and claim what is ours and what we must make accessible, in never stopping the search for that field where the sun breaks on our perceptions of what truly is right or wrong.

Written by Adrija Ghosh

Featured image by Hitashi Arora

Night, A Few Shades Darker

City-dwellers have never known that shade of the night that is an absolute, pitch black. Slivers of light leak out from the various orifices of the metropolis, and even when they hardly illuminate, they interrupt the dark, shear it of its blackness. In a particular little slice of Kerala-forest that nestles a familiar, well-loved house in its middle, the night is not so assailable. Here, the next-door neighbour’s house is easily a city-block away. It could, perhaps, be a pinprick on the horizon if not for the enthusiastic crowd of trees in my line of sight. So when the night descends, the house’s lonely front-door lamp has the unenviable task of warding off the dark, unaided by a streetlight or even moonshine, which is sucked up by the looming foliage, sponge-like.

It is on this annual Kerala getaway of mine that I know that shade of the night. This night is so tangible a presence that walking through it sometimes makes my steps falter, and before the rational part of my brain comes back online, I am sure for a moment of crashing into it like you would into a brick wall. This is the kind of night that seems so impenetrable that the idea of torchlight dispersing it is laughable right up to the moment that I flick it on. And if unarmed with one, this is that shade of night that steals away vision so effectively that I might as well walk with my eyes shut, for I am equally blind either way. It is also exactly that shade of night that I can look out into, and remain unafraid of.

In Delhi, home ends the moment I step over the threshold of my house. From that point onwards, I am at DEFCON 1, till I get to wherever I am supposed to and the door shuts reassuringly behind me. Ten paces away from the front door is as not-home as the flight of stairs just below my floor or the park right at the heart of my colony or the parking lot right outside it or the flyover fifteen minutes away or the metro station twenty minutes away. The familiar is not the safe in the city. Bathed in daylight, sometimes it feels like it might be, if I wanted to be lulled into a nice complacency, but the night strips it bare of its pretensions. At night, I look into the diffused dark and I am afraid of the things I can no longer see coming.

The only place where the night belongs to me is on this yearly holiday. No human activity stirs the silence of the night. Unlike in the city, everyone here has a similar routine. They are all, without exception, ensconced in their respective faraway homes by dusk. The silence lies as heavily upon the world as the night, broken only by the chirping of an occasional cricket or the quiet rustling of the trees. In the midst of it all, I feel no need to arm myself with courage and a pepper spray to walk to my neighbour’s house. I meet no one at all as I make my way along the narrow dirt-path that winds through the forest, which is equally inhospitable and unknowable to everyone in the dark. Nature stamps her claim on the night, and this dirt-path is the compromise. So be it.

Stargazing on these country nights is a wonder, sure, but the calm security of their darkness is a revelation. Once a year, it is liberating to know that the familiar can be the safe. Once a year, the night can be equally unsettling to everyone, and in that shade of the night, home extends its boundaries as far as me.

Written by Swathi Gangadharan

Featured image by Stuti Pachisia

SHELF(ISH)

1986
My VIP logo gleams in the dark room. I am too close to the roof for comfort. However, this is still better than my cramped former home at the shop down the road. A majestic red American Tourister suitcase struggles with me for space. The handy Samsonite black bag grins at our antics. As the days pass by, the Samsonite gets on and off the shelf, telling us stories of airports and hotel rooms. Jealousy gnaws at my insides, making my zips vibrate.

Finally, a calloused hand with multicoloured bangles on its wrist, gently pulls me down the shelf. It carefully unzips me to place neat bundles of clothes, undergarments, toiletries, towels and sanitary napkins. It lovingly pats my cover after it is finished. The red suitcase and black travel bag are already on holiday, forcing me to gloat by myself. I roll my wheels with excitement.

The calloused hand comes back. It unzips me with a jerk, throws all the packed items out and pushes me away violently. A few of the bangles slip out of reach, cracking under my weight. Shards of glass sadly twinkle in the grim light of the room.

1991
A new, work-roughened hand hurriedly wipes my case nowadays. My companions laugh at my short journey. Up and down the shelf I go. Up and down.

Down.
Dow.
Do.
D.

1997
The slender calloused hand has lost most of its bangles. It wears a single gold bracelet that refuses to tinkle, for it has lost its friends. The hand touches me sometimes. Its fingers trace untold stories, hummed songs and blurry pictures on my cover. It impatiently drums its fingers at times, working me up into a frenzy of anticipation. Its broken nails and chafed fingers seem too tired on other days.

2006
A new Safari Bag has usurped my place on the shelf. I have been confined to the store. Dirty trunks, unused curtains, moths and flies invade my privacy every day. I rest forgotten, like lost sepia photographs that make memory forget.

2016
Suddenly, I am jerked out of my slumber. A slender, weather beaten, shrivelled hand happily pulls me out of layers of grime. It throws me open under the benign yellow light bulb and cleans me thoroughly with soap water and dry cloth. Then, it puts a few dull coloured saris, some jewellery and many packs of medicines in me. As sugar free pills and tubes of volini scramble for space, the tired (albeit hopeful) hand places a passport in the centre. The red American Tourister suitcase, black Samsonite bag and Safari bag on the esteemed shelf look away furiously.

Indira Gandhi International Airport

Now, it is my turn.

 

Written by Tript Kaur

Featured image by Hitashi Arora

Of Holidays and Sadness

‘One day I will come to the hills and not bring any sadness with me.’

Being sad is not limited by metros and trains, like my pet cactus Benny is (plants are not allowed in metros).

Sadness travels everywhere.

You will do many happy things in the hills.

You will sing and dance in buses.

You will breathe in the mountain air that tastes so different from the city air.

You will pose ridiculously in touristy places.

You will laugh over books with your friends, sitting in a cramped train compartment.

You will go for walks that sometimes give you the illusion of being alone with the hills.

You will pretend you are gazing at the sunlight against red leaves when you are trying to hold in the motion sickness.

You will have encounters with monkeys, and stay up all night (or not).

You will hike to distant places, and play cards in odd spaces.

You will do many other things that I would never do, but I think at some point we would feel a similar relief over our happiness.

While you are doing some of these things or all of these things, your city-sadness will come to you, as if you’d stuffed it in your packet of socks, or mixed it into your sanitizer.

You will feel sadness that I’d never feel, but I think at some point we would feel a similar frustration with our sadness.

Holidays cannot erase sadness. Sometimes they lessen it, and sometimes they increase it.

Star-gazing is wonderful. Tiny points of light swell up inside you, pushing out all the tiny problems – but I have realised that no amount of star-gazing can replace tiny problems, because holidays end, and so does the night.

So then, what was the point?

The hills, too, aren’t limited by metros and trains like my pet cactus Benny is (plants are not allowed in metros, but pots and soil are).

‘One day when I am sad, I will bring the hills with me.’

Written by Anushmita Mohanty

Featured image by Stuti Pachisia

What Venturing into the Unknown Taught Me About Faith: Rendezvous With Rats

Life had, for a while, meant monotony. Even this – my parents’ decision to visit Rajasthan, the dry lands of India – could not possibly jostle me into excitement. After an excruciating journey, we decided to spend the night at Bikaner and head towards Jaisalmer on the morrow. My father, a man of restless disposition, was keen to extricate something memorable out of this seemingly far-from-stimulating place.

One of the locals threw the words “The Rat Temple” into my father’s ears and he jumped at it with all the readiness of an optimist. Intrigued, we decided to find out the truth about the temple before visiting it. A local priest came to our rescue. It may sound like a nightmare from the New York City subway to some, but in India’s small northwestern city of Deshnoke, this is a place of worship: Rajasthan’s famous Karni Mata Temple.

Goddess Karni Mata, the divinity with mysterious healing powers, belonged to the Charan clan and was born on October 2nd, 1387 in Suwap, Rajasthan. Her real name was Ridhu Bai. One day, as her aunt combed her hair with one hand, Ridhu Bai asked her why she wouldn’t use her other hand, upon which her aunt told her how she had lost it to disability. Ridhu Bai took the hand in her own and said “Where is the defect, it is all right,” and, legend has it, her hand was cured in a moment. Awe-struck, her aunt renamed Ridhu Bai as “Karni” (the wreaker of miracles on earth).

Karni Mata, a mystic matriarch of the fourteenth century, is believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Durga – the deity of power and victory. The story goes, that when the child of one of her clansmen died, she had attempted to bring him back to life, only to be told by Yama, the god of death, that he had already been reincarnated as a rat. Karni Mata cut a deal with Yama: that day onwards, all of her tribes-people would be reborn as rats until they could be born back into the clan. In Hinduism, death marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one on the path to a soul’s eventual oneness with the universe. This cycle of transmigration is known as samsara and is precisely why Karni Mata’s rats are treated like royalty.

The Karni Mata Temple, located in the small town of Deshnoke (about 30 kilometers from Bikaner), is also known as “Chuha Mandir” (the temple of Rats) and was erected following her mysterious disappearance from her home. This temple is one of the strangest attractions in India, as rats – associated with plague and other diseases, and considered vermin in many cultures – are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple, locally known as “Kabbas.”

Among the inexplicably true facts about the temple, we were told, is that despite there being around twenty thousand rats here, no one to this date has seen any baby rats. Their reproduction continues to be a mystery. Devotees feed the rats enthusiastically, and yet, all of them remain the same size. Moreover, their numbers have remained constant – something diametrically opposed to the usual trend of rat populations, which is to increase rapidly. Another miracle is that rats do not run away from humans here. Rather, they climb on your shoulders and drink the milk you offer them. If one kills a rat here, one needs to replace it with a gold or silver rat of the same size, shape, height and weight. The temple gates are always open, but the rats never leave, and always stay within the temple boundaries. It is believed that when a temple rat dies, there is a consequent birth in the tribe. To this date there have been no epidemics in Bikaner, in spite of having so many rats!

The ‘facts’ were made-up stories to our outright logical and only-what-you-can-explain-is-true city brains. And yet, despite all my atheistic impulses, I will now tell you that there was an unintelligible feeling about the place. I could feel my body becoming lighter and lighter as I walked into the temple. I have been told that I’m extremely psychic and intuitive so I thought this feeling was unique to me. Then, as we came closer, our legs hung as loose weights at the sight of around twenty thousand rats running freely on the temple floor.

We stood there fixated, while my dad, the hero of the family, went and completed an entire chakra (circle) of the temple. Next, it was naturally my turn, as I had waged an unhealthy internal rebellion against myself since an early age. I was the, “Oh if you can do it then why can’t I?” kind of girl. I shuddered at the sight of a mosquito at home but I had to appear composed at the thought of innumerable rats moving all over me. I began talking to myself in my head, as I am wont to do. “Hmm. Alright, I’m going to do this!” “Ready?” “Yes, I am!” “Sure?” “Yes idiot, of course!” I began to lose my nerve and had almost rejected the plan when the incomprehensible energy surrounded me yet again and I felt an innate impulse to walk on. Before I knew it, I had completed an entire chakra of the rat temple. Six rats scampered over my feet and one jumped on my hip. I even saw two white rats that are meant to bring great luck.

Just when I was assured of the uniqueness of my psychic abilities, I saw my mom moving towards my dad and myself. Up until that moment, the theory of life on the Sun would have been more plausible to me than the idea of my mother, a lady given to hysterics and an almost paralysing animal-phobia, walking amidst rats of her own will. Before we knew it, she had completed an entire chakra as well. Everything was so strange that I struggled to keep standing without visibly shaking. When I asked my mom why and how she did it, she told me: “I just had to. I couldn’t stop myself from walking on. I still don’t know how or why, but it was meant to happen”. My father, without having heard my mother’s words, said something very similar himself.

Next we met a young fellow whom everyone was lining up to shake hands with. We were told that he had been struck by a fatal illness when he was 14. The doctors had given up on him. Thereafter, he was brought to the temple and was made to drink the same water that was offered by devotees to the temple rats. He awoke instantly after sipping the holy water – blessed, it would seem, by Karni Mata herself. He has been living at the temple ever since, and has devoted his life to Karni Mata’s service. Yes, call me absurd, but when I shook hands with him, I could feel his energy flowing through me and instantly changing something within me. All of a sudden, I felt powerful, like someone had just force-fed me bottles of Gatorade.

That night, none of us spoke to each other back at our hotel, which was rare for our talkative family. It was as if we had all found solace in our respective worlds. The trip to Rajasthan went by. Today, I can hardly remember any other sights or smells from the admittedly beautiful place. The peace I found within my own self was so overpowering that, for a while, the outside world didn’t matter.

My family is still as disinclined towards religion or visiting temples as before, but whenever we encounter a difficult situation, the words that come out of our mouths are, “Jai Karni Mata!” We believe that our faith in her blessings has created an energy field encircling my family that ensures that there is a considerable distance between the evils of the cosmos and us.

This trip led me to faith – spiritual, if not religious. This faith was sparked by a chance encounter, but will stay burning for eternity. If you feel this overwhelming, powerful sense of faith in someone or something, do not ignore it. Miracles, I believe, are nothing but a manifestation of the energies, hopes, and beliefs of the tireless human spirit. Let not having faith not keep you from unusual realizations. Go against what you’re expected to do. Choose to believe.

Written by Avnika Gupta

Featured image by Sanna Jain

The Arbitrary Goat

No one was quite sure why it had happened or how they decided that this was a good idea. I maintain that I had nothing to do with why Champi, the – well, she wasn’t a local goat, and she certainly wasn’t one we had bought, but the long and short of it is that we had a goat on campus.

I know, you’re all wondering how this qualifies for the theme. But the narrative of Champi the goat is going to be completed, by hook or by crook.

In any case, Champi the goat is the focus of this story. I know why. I certainly don’t know how. Here’s what I know: Champi turned up on campus. It was something completely unexpected, a bolt out of the blue. All I know is that there she was one fine day, hanging out with the puppies and cats.

Quite used to animals turning up arbitrarily, we dealt with Champi’s appearance the way most girls do – by either including her in mainstream society by feeding her leaves of grass (much to Whitman’s chagrin) or by denying them space in the human world.

Champi did not have an easy time. Girls would run away from her, working men would throw stones  to chase her away, and the Animal Welfare Committee controlled her right to food. As a result she didn’t fare that well. On top of that, the garden was a sacred space, magical lawns were not to be nibbled at, and only the social responsibility of petting could make her feel included. Even that was in short supply, since protection against the germs in her fur became a burning issue. Regardless, the goat persevered – she fought for her space in the college hierarchy, nibbling leaves drowsily. She was a good goat, a mascot for the animals because she belonged to the minority community and was small enough to prevent complaints against her forays into grazing. And then Champi decided to take a holiday.

It all changed when the English Department decided to take her on the Department trip for the purposes of the article. Champi had been looking extremely restless for a while, as her attempts to escape campus were frustrated by the lack of space.

Like everything about Champi the goat, this was also shrouded in mystery. The girl who was handling her held onto a thick rope and muttered to herself about how “the whole idea was insane,” and “is this really worth an article?” Champi the goat was smuggled onto a bus and taken across borders for this covert operation to succeed –which, it did.

That was when all of us noticed that Champi had curiously emotive eyes, and in the darkness of the bus, some girls swore they could hear her thinking.

We woke up during the first night in the bus to curious sounds of metallic clunking. This was dismissed at first. After all, we were on a bus heading to the Himalayas – there had to be some amount of clunking around. Nobody suspected the goat.

But the noise continued, and eventually one of us investigated.

Champi was eating the bus.

I know it is quite impossible to believe such a thing, but the story begins with the presumption of a goat on campus. The reader will have to suspend logic for a while for it to function.

Back to the story: Champi had been chewing away at the bus. Some of the chairs had been chewed up, and we could see one of the tires through ghastly eaten metal.  We aren’t sure how she ate metal. She was a miraculous goat after all.

Some of us pondered abandoning her on the highway, while the rest were concerned about how we were supposed to get past the checkpoints with the bus falling apart. Funnily enough, when we did stop at the checkpoint, the man was more concerned about the number of girls travelling alone.

Itni saari ladkiyan akele?” he asked. “Aur kya hoga? Ladkiyan akeli ghoomne jaati hain toh yahi hota hai unki buson ke saath.”

Nobody cared about how freezing and disorienting it was to have the bus half open, but we made it – by another small miracle – to Manali.

By the time we got there, Champi had chomped off half the bus and had decided to begin with the suitcases. We all grabbed rooms to shower, while the same exasperated girl was stuck with Champi once more.

Champi followed us around everywhere we went. She came for the water sports and the hike, and managed to climb up to the corners we couldn’t reach. She came to the DJ night dressed in a red shimmery scarf, and nobody knew where she got that from. She was everywhere. People found her in multiple rooms at once, and most of us were angry at how this goat had been causing such havoc by messing things up just enough to cause a ruckus.

Eventually, we went to the Mall Road in Shimla. This was not a place where goats were traditionally allowed. Hell, even cars weren’t allowed. But nobody said anything about Champi (apart from the antique manager at the antique shop who warned her against chewing the antiques).

All the dogs on the Mall Road strangely avoided Champi They growled and grumbled around her, and made all of us very nervous, but maintained their distance. On the other hand, many eyewitnesses swore that Champi had a red glint in her eye whenever animals approached her.

If you think this story is going to end in a psychedelic goat with glasses, I will have to say no. Champi came back from the trip having traumatized the people who thought that the goat could read minds. Hostellers began to see her apparitions in the mess, calmly nibbling salad. The Animal Welfare Committee which was supposedly handling the problem planted more trees to feed her.

This story is a pieced-together report of what happened afterwards – because all the other animals in college rallied around Champi to demand food, water, and most importantly – holidays.

The animals declared that they were quite done with eating out of dustbins and being treated like second rate citizens. They were aware that it wasn’t a perfect world and they couldn’t get everything but basic necessities were something they deserved like the hostellers, deprived though those girls were.

The Animal Welfare Committee had long conferences with Champi the goat – the spokesperson of college animal rights. Nothing was resolved (which was just at par with usual college business, someone remarked at the Café while buying a sandwich that cost her sixty rupees). People were confused about how the goat was conducting negotiations, and even more about her demands.

The animals (the ones who were on the margins) became more and more of an inconvenience to the girls. The Admin didn’t like the whole affair either, and eventually, Champi the goat and all the dogs left. Like some grand Moses and his flock, they disappeared, searching for places to stay, food, and – holidays.

The cats stayed in the hostel, because they didn’t care for politics, and cared even less for grand narratives. They were cheerful as long as food was being given to them.

Like I said, Champi didn’t disappear randomly. But does it really give us credit, if the story demands her disappearance, for natural order to be restored?

Written by Tanvi Chowdhury

Featured image by Sanna Jain