Another essay that has been sent off to TKP...
I am a little more productive now, although not as much as i would like to be... but the gears are grinding along better...
Khichari and Blindfolds
I knew the woman would eventually get me into trouble: she is always pausing to sniff the flowers while I want to rush by, to get safely into a familiar territory where I don't have to answer or question, where, for heaven's sake, I am left alone to brood or simply stare out of the window. Everybody knows her, and therefore everybody wants to know what I am doing in their street, plodding along in the mornings to buy milk and eggs, sitting morosely through the afternoons outside the tea-stall at the end of their alley, scrutinizing them with piercing—if feigned—scholarship, as if categorizing them into pages of a thick volume in my head. Nobody here knows my name, except an aged singer spinster, who has surely forgotten my name or my face. I have nothing to say to the children and shorn widows who instinctively pucker their lips and squint when they look at me, not knowing quite what to make of my presence in the alley where they empty their spittoons or throw their cricket balls.
Now the woman has got me into trouble: instead of demurring and closing the door behind her, she has laughed with the thirteen-year old boy who has organized the puja, and disappeared just around the corner for a bowl of khichari. I follow her with bags full of grocery: eggplants, eggs, pumpkin flowers, two hundred grams of Rohu fish, three tomatoes, a bag of muesli. She comes around the corner, a leaf-bowl duno full of spicy khichari in her hands, the idol of Saraswati still smiling two full days after her puja. I have no choice but to venture around the corner.
I have so far avoided this corner, barely ten paces beyond the door into which I daily disappear, or from which I reemerge into the community's realm that is the thin, eternally disturbed, incessantly dug-up, cat-strewn, widow-watched alley. I do not know where the road leads in that direction: there is no tea-stall or ration-store around that corner, I am certain of that. But that doesn't preclude the possibility of there waiting for me a charming lane with overflowing window-boxes of bougainvillea, or a particularly attractive window that lets waft the soft strains of music sweet to the ears and calls out a comely woman or two who will smile at me before closing the window, flicking on the switch to a chamber where cultural confusion flits in a blood-mingling flea-dance of seduction, and where I am rendered incapable of deciding if that was withdrawal or invitation, if she lowered her eyes to close me out or to draw me in with her lashes.
The boy grins as he brings me a bowl of khichari, as a part of the puja celebrations. This is a city run by communists—the longest elected communist government in the world, I am reminded by its citizens whenever the opportunity arises, which is very often, once they come to know I hail from the principality of Prachanda Dahal. Yet, their pujas drag on forever: even Kumar, Shiva's other son largely forgotten in Nepal, has his own puja, and it is sobering to remember that I have seen him only as an enamelled relief on the western gate to Pashupatinath temple, where I take my visiting non-Hindu friends to appreciate the golden shape of Nandi's giant testicles as he squats facing east. Like Nandi's golden frame, the steaming duno of khichari is warm and golden. I am too hungry to protest. I dig into the wallet for the woman's visiting card to eat the khichari, but she is a wild woman with her own ideas about loyalty and integrity: she insists that I imitate her, eat with my fingers coated black in Kolkata-grime, tasting first the smoke and salt of a sick city, then the khichari spices.
I am furious. I am the incarnation of Rudra himself, but only for about ten seconds. The spicy khichari tastes of turmeric and chillies more than anything, but it also a comfort food that caresses the mind in its most infantile corners: it is glorified dal-bhat, it assures across a gulf of unfamiliarity, it melts foreignness into friendliness.
Then they blindfold me and give me a stick. Fifteen paces away is a single brick on the asphalt. I am to find my way to the brick after being spun around a couple of times: to strike a grounded piñata, to toe and stumble towards an unseen goal, and reaching it, to announce my arrival with a savage blow. In the blindness, in the strict binding of my vision, I realize how much I am an outsider, and for that reason alone, how much a spectacle, how much welcome as a comic relief, which must be, I insist in the moment, the first invitation towards acceptance. I am good at throwing darts, I remind myself, as if that means anything at all, except that it recalls another moment long ago in a friend's friends' basement where I had to stand alongside another woman, a friend again, proving that I was no simple foreign freak, but a man of quirks and romance.
There are small, rodent snickers from children and gruff laughs from men and sighs and coughs that serve as the language of women in this city as I walk aslant towards the goal. I walk into the mounds on either side of the alley, correcting the map in my mind, flexing my foot in subtle degrees. I am blind. There is an audience outside of me, whose faces I can't reconstruct because I have not taken the time to know them, watching me, waiting for me to stumble and plant my face into the asphalt. I give up on the goal, but I know it is important to persist until a conclusion is announced. I step forward.
Until I reach and toe the brick, very slightly, as if testing its verity, as if checking the intention of those that watch me. There is nothing more to do but to wait for the trumpet of arrival. I do not want to strike the brick—that registers as mildly vulgar, assuming an absent familiarity, easy boast if I belonged here, but otherwise an unwelcome and hostile gesture. I pause with the first chorus of sharp uptake of breath. There will soon descend a verdict: if I qualify for the prize, if the foreigner has proved himself, if he sullied himself in stains of turmeric enough to earn familiarity. There is a split second of silence before the eruption: it is filled with nothing but the warm blindness that surrounds me. Here I am nobody, unless I announce myself through great feats of magic, like finding a brick on the ground fifteen paces away. If I am nobody, I can't belong, but I am not forced to be a foreigner either. I am renewed into a man freshly arrived at a metropolis that is nonetheless stitched together with the small grime of many lives, and I ask to be included, folded in the midst of their collage of needs and joys.