Born a Crime: Searing, original, witty

Trevor Noah’s memoir never runs short of terrible and terribly amusing things. Born to a black mother and a white father at a time when such a union was a crime, Trevor’s birth broke laws in a way that was only too obvious – he was brown. He talks of his early childhood and his entry into adulthood, marked by apartheid in the outside world, abuse at home, incessant hustling, racism that is petty and cruel and everywhere, religious fervour and miracles.

It is also the story of a woman who was determined to equip her child with the mind to succeed in a world that is always changing, that is eager to step on you when you were down, that didn’t give the disenfranchised any breaks. Trevor isn’t looking for pity, even though you may be quick to sympathize with him. He is honest, insightful and frequently funny – some of the incidents he narrates make us laugh out loud, partly due to their absurdity.

Trevor and his dog Fufi seem to be curiously alike. Fufi would start every day like it was a slate wiped clean, free from the tragedies of the past, going back to the stepfather that hit her frequently, smiling and eager to play. Trevor, it appears, comes at life with the same enthusiasm, with the remarkable ability to forget pain. He is the person for whom the tired line about lemons and lemonade was made. He caught every lemon thrown at him and made that damn lemonade every single day.

While reading Born a Crime, I got to thinking about how familiar the milieu is. The chaos that governs lives, the rules that don’t make any sense but are thought to keep society together, the loopholes in the system that are exploited by everyone, our colonial hangovers, the distrust we share of each other, the patriarchy we propagate, the belief that some human beings are superior to others simply by the fact of their birth. It is often said that the fight of the Dalits in India is comparable to African-Americans’ fight for equality. It isn’t very different from the resistance of black people in South Africa either, fighting to live with dignity.

I have not read an engaging book about apartheid until now, my reference points are all from dull history books. A fact here about Nelson Mandela, and another there about the language Afrikaans. It is a much more different experience reading someone’s personal and very intimate story. It becomes a history lesson you cannot forget.

A musical from halfway across the world

I should have liked La La Land.

I do not know what explains my bias for choreographed song-and-dance sequences, opening dance numbers, duets, solo performances by either of the leads, background dancers always in sync, characters speaking in verses and breaking into song to let us know of their feelings – these things aren’t unusual, they are the norm. Maybe because this was the only kind of cinema I knew for a long time, before I could rent video cassettes of English movies from that slightly more upscale video rental library. It was the order of things then, our movies needed these songs and dances the way they needed dialogues. A well choreographed sequence would break the monotony in a dull movie, an inventive step would be recreated forever, going down in the history books as artefacts of popular culture, a star who is also a dancer makes us joyful and enthusiastic.

And then there is La La Land.

It has everything – a love story, an actress looking for a break and a jazz musician looking to set up a jazz bar, great tunes, an opening number where everyone dances in perfect coordination and formation, introduction songs for the leads, a duet following a meet-cute, even a dream song. And yet something was off, I couldn’t put my finger on it, a feeling of mild irritation, impatience, some annoyance at how out of place it all looked. I was a bit insecure –but what about all those Oscar nominations– I couldn’t understand it until my wise friend told me, your problem is you find it incongruous to watch white people doing these things.

He could be onto something.

A sandwich and a book

Sometimes a memory comes at you like a mosquito, uncalled and unwanted. You shake your head and wave your hands, thinking it will go away. Mmmhhhh, you say. But it sits there, pricking, drawing blood, and you contemplate the angry red mark that is left behind.

Sometimes, a memory is delicious.

The sandwich

It happened all those years ago, and I remember what I was wearing, feeling like a girl which was unusual. A babypink shirt with sleeves that came just past the elbows, and a long skirt that was white at the waist and the colour changed every few centimetres, lightest pink, light pink, pink, darker pink, and a darkest pink at the ankles – ombré, I know to call it now, but back then it was the Shades of Pink Skirt. In that year of awkwardness, wanting to be a girl, but not very comfortable being one, I was taken in by the cool kids. A group of girls who left me in awe, with their perfect singing voices and school uniform skirts that they stitched in a stylish way I wanted to copy, with athletic bodies and artistic minds. That day, a bunch of us washed up at one of their homes, unannounced, filling the living room with laughter and chatter, and pointing at a younger brother on the verge of puberty, who had large feet but hadn’t yet shot up.

Are you hungry, Aunty asked us, as she walked into the kitchen and looked in her refrigerator.

Anusha is vegetarian, someone said, and there was silence for a moment.

Who is this new vegetarian friend you have brought home, Aunty wanted to know. You don’t even eat fish?

No but eggs are alright, if we make them in a pan that my mother likes to call The Egg Pan, and we leave the exhaust fan running so her kitchen doesn’t smell. No but my father isn’t a vegetarian sometimes, when he ate that whole fish or that grilled chicken and came home and tried to tell my mother his mouth doesn’t smell all that bad.

Aunty made me a special sandwich, because I was vegetarian and I couldn’t eat what the others were eating.

You will need a sandwich maker – an electric one or one you held in your hand and flipped over a gas stove.

  1. Bread-butter-jam sandwich

Take two slices of bread. On one, spread butter thickly. On another, spread jam. Place them together so the butter and jam can say hello to each other.

When the sandwich is done, the butter would have melted, making the bread golden brown, soft and crackling at the same time.

This could be what Memory tastes like. On some days, when Memory hums and buzzes and leaves behind angry red skin, I find myself making this sandwich to have with my cup of tea. I didn’t drink tea back then, I was too young for it my mother said.

The book

Another of the girls, with hair like the spring inside a ball-point pen and a heart-shaped face, lived with her two sisters in a home that felt like a story. They had many many books, posters of handsome men on their walls, a piano in the corner, bunk beds for the girls and music tapes. They spoke English to one another and discussed Literature and Movies at the dining table. She gave me my first grown-up books, books I couldn’t take from my Age Section at the British Council Library. She introduced me to the trilogy by Tolkien which I read all day for seven days and another book called The God of Small Things, which left me feeling sad for too long.

Two days ago, I remembered this book, because Memory attacked me. And I recalled a large dingy house, bats and jackfruits, pickles, a beautiful black man, twins who did something bad, and an old lady who did something worse. I bought the book, thirteen years after I first laid hands on it, and read it in a day. I understood things differently now. I also saw the language differently, the audacity that created words and whole universes within them.

Back then, when I thought my world was divided into 1. Vegetarians and Non-vegetarians, 2. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, 3. Those with Egg Pans and those without, I didn’t realize the world tricks us into thinking it is a kind place. I didn’t know why the maid at our house in India didn’t use the same toilet we did, even though she cleaned it for us. I didn’t know what everyone meant when they said, if only he were born into a different family, he could be anything he wanted. Or when someone was told he or she didn’t know their place, for they had desirable qualities like being smart and resourceful, but these qualities weren’t desirable in them because it made them forget their place. I didn’t know what we did to those who dream and desire, for freedom and forbidden things.

I understood anew the social structures that History passes down and the Present upholds, too scared to accept changes, punishing those who transgress. I felt the sadness returning to me, as memory collided with lived experiences, a force so strong I had to stop reading for a while.

A Memory that tastes like a bread-butter-jam sandwich is what I need now.

The unsuitable boy is okay

In middle school, I knew a girl who named herself Poo, after Kareena Kapoor’s character in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. She sashayed down the corridors as though auditioning for a beauty pageant, her entourage of two girls imitated and flattered her to the best of their abilites.

I never liked Karan Johar. Not his first movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, in which I heard him tell me tomboyish girls are undesirable, making me feel awkward in my cargo pants and sports shoes. Not his second movie, a family melodrama in which helicopters brought children home; there was also a patriarch whose neck had an unusual crick that wouldn’t allow him to bend. I disliked his talk show, which I thought became progressively boring with each season, except when some guests took it upon themselves to enliven the proceedings. I do feel more ambivalent towards him of late, with his most recent work (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) coming across as an honest movie – in spite of the constant urge I had to yell at the characters, “You have a private jet for fuck’s sake, get over yourself!” He is also the most overexposed celebrity of our times, making us think we’ve been voyeurs looking into his life for years and years. What then is left to know of him? An Unsuitable Boy tries to answer this question – Karan Johar’s life in his own words, written with Poonam Saxena.

We learn of his childhood, his fears and insecurities, how he was almost strong-armed into making his first movie with Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, his work at Dharma Productions. Some of it is moving, such as his troubles with being an effeminate boy, teased and called a pansy; and later when he deals with the loss of his father. Some of it is cheap thrills, like an entire chapter on Shah Rukh Khan and then one on Love and Sex – because a book from Karan Johar would be incomplete without references to these entities. Some of it makes you cringe – when he talks of his middle class existence that allowed him to live in London in a rented apartment while writing scripts (Really now?).

I did realize a few things though. I was always of the opinion celebrities must be vocal about their sexuality – I imagined this would be serve as motivation for others having to hide in plain sight. But when he explains that he does not want to discuss his sexuality, especially in a country that still criminalizes certain acts, I find myself wanting to agree with him. It makes me think we must not hold famous people to different standards simply because they are famous. I also did not think of how important lowbrow humour is, in bringing conversations about homosexuality to living rooms. If it weren’t for the awful Kantaben jokes in Kal Ho Naa Ho, or two men pretending to be gay so as to befriend an undeniably attractive Priyanka Chopra (Dostana), I wouldn’t be using the word gay at home, when talking to my parents. In our demands for more sensitive portrayals of people repressed by the mainstream, we often tend to forget how this humour has helped.

An Unsuitable Boy isn’t a bad book, just a poorly written (and edited) one. An autobiography indicates a certain level of self-absorption, but even by those standards, the self-involvement is over the top at times. It reads a bit like the director is talking nonstop and nobody had the heart to stop him, which can get exasperating after a while.

Years to go

I want to be a fabulous old woman.

A woman who doesn’t dye her white hair black or brown or red, a woman who pulls up errant children by their ears and makes them brush their teeth after they eat chocolate, a woman who asks young ones to go on mad adventures, to fall in love and enjoy the drowning, to collect people the way others collect stamps, a woman who tells you of the time she jumped off the balcony -it really wasn’t that high- a woman who wears her eccentricity like a scarf around her neck, a woman with a wardrobe full of curiosities -clothes and earrings and books from all over the world, gifts from friends who have long disappeared, souvenirs from flames extinguished- a woman whose body is wrinkled, soft and hard in different places from years of use, a woman who cooks for those she adores meals that warm hearts and stomachs, a woman who tells others off for being scared and for being unkind.

I want to be a fabulous old woman now.


The Late Show

Let’s get it to it then. The week that was, with yours truly.

***

Now that everyone has decided their wedding must resemble a Bollywood Musical, I get to watch many dance performances that were choreographed by a creative cousin or an out-of-work choreographer. So this is how I came across the Punjabi rap song Wakhra Swag (Unique Swag), in which, to nobody’s surprise, two men talk about their unique swag. While doing so, they decide to hate on youth (read women) who run behind fast fashion and branded consumer goods. They single out Gucci, Armani, Aldo and Audi for their cause. The men, naturally, are true sons of the soil, wearing black kurta-pyjama, locally sourced shoes, and driving a 350cc Yamaha motorcycle. Of course, women serve other purposes in the music video – like trying out sexy steps every twenty seconds or pretending to put on make-up, because these are things that women typically do. They are also paid to smile as rappers get in their face to tell them off for their poor choices. As the video draws to a close, the girl under fire walks about wearing a patiala suit, no doubt the rap song showed her how wrong she was. The man watches her, and shows her the universally recognized hand sign that means Super! But he’s wearing Jimmy Choo shoes as he does this. Maybe they are fake Jimmy Choos he bought in Delhi-6.

***

Having got that out of the way, we shall move on to more pleasant discussions, such as my day at The Hindu Lit for Life 2017. I would like to talk to about two sessions in particular – Poet Vairamuthu’s seemingly extemporaneous speech on Words, Music and Meaning; and Dr. Perumal Murugan’s conversation with A.R. Venkatachalapathy, whom he fondly called Chalapathy. As Vairamuthu recalled familiar anecdotes, involving at least two musical geniuses and some extraordinary directors, I started smiling to myself. Do you think he talks this way at home, to his family, I wondered. Would he speak to his sons in chaste Tamil? What if they picked up that notorious Chennai slang from playing in the streets and called him Naina, would he ground them? It is not imperative to know these answers. If Vairamuthu reminded me of a teacher we are openly in awe of and secretly a little bit in love with; the author Perumal Murugan reminded me of an affable friend of our father’s, whom you might want to confide in, you imagine he could tell you the kind of stories that make you feel guilty for not having a story to give him in return. There was one point that Perumal Murugan made, and he said this thought came to him on completing Koola Madhari. Where earlier he thought his life to be one of hardships, of straining to overcome new and strange obstacles, he now thought of his life until then as a happy one. Why do the good parts desert us faster, he asked. I am going to make an effort to remember the good parts more often, even if the bad bits change me in unforeseen ways and make me want to open up to strangers. This is a fairly simple idea, but it is entirely possible that my recent laps in the waters of self-pity had blinded me temporarily.

***

The Late Show ends here, owing to general lack of sponsors and abysmal rating points. If you are interested in frequent updates, please write in.

Permanent trials of nomadic lives

I find that I have never been able to guess the age of someone from the Narikuravar community. Their skin is a lovely brown and their face remains unblemished, making me think Nature took a break and decided to be kind for a moment, in light of other tragedies that constantly visit these gypsy people. I look elsewhere, because I do not want to glance at the beads they sell and then decline to buy any. I watch them beg at traffic signals and on pavements along the beach, only to ignore them. I turn them away when they offer to reveal the happiness that my future holds for me, because I do not know how much to give them. How much is enough? Is it ever enough? I feel small, and I want to be invisible, without a thought for those who have forever remained hidden in the frayed seams of society’s fabric.

One day, there were no escape routes. As I stood in that vacant manner of one whose thumbs are so used to punching at a smartphone, I saw before me a young woman with a baby hanging from her chest, its bottom straining against the thin cloth she’d wrapped it in. A girl, rather, with breasts so small and a waist that looked fragile, perfect teeth as if her childhood was punctuated by visits to the dentist, short and beautiful. The baby sucked on a piece of plastic, while she wordlessly offered her hand from which were hanging several necklaces of beads. I shook my head. Vendam. She wouldn’t leave. I opened my wallet and noticed I had a two-thousand rupee note, nothing else. She’d seen my wallet, my bag, my water bottle, and I’d refused to buy, refused to give money. I wasn’t willing to part with my two-thousand rupees, and I absolved myself of any guilt instantly. Really now, I couldn’t give her that much, even if she had a baby that was trying to eat plastic, even if she’ll never sell enough beads to make a living.

Maybe I didn’t absolve myself completely. I walked away but I wasn’t able to leave. I went inside a store and bought some snacks. I looked for her and gave her some of the change I received, not a lot, just a little to make myself feel better, all the while thinking that even giving is about myself now. To relieve me of the tightening in my chest, to allow myself to feel better the next time I pretend to be blind. I gave the child a snack. She stared at me and disappeared into the crowd.

I sat on the platform and felt the tears pooling in my eyes, for being a selfish individual, for the privilege I possess, for the suffering that will never end after generations and generations, for the women who always have it worse than the men, and for everything I choose to ignore.

KEY:

Narikuravar: A nomadic tribe found in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state. Pushed out of the forests they once called home, they now wander the cities trying to make a living from selling beaded ornaments and fortune-telling.