Roots and their Contradictions

On Being an American Bitch – 2 (Part 1 here)

“But it is important to know this, to know your roots. To know where you started as a person. If not, your own life seems unreal to you. Like a puzzle… Like you have missed the beginning of a story and now you are in the middle of it, trying to understand.”
– Pari, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini


In Papa’s village, people like me. They take both my hands and press it to their cheeks. They want me to eat more, smile less, learn more. They want to see three degrees at the end of my name. They never call me by name. They have called me doctor since my first summer out of high school. In this Kerala I half-know, I bear my name as a crown.

In this landscape I find myself in the middle of, remnants of a feudal structure tower over me, extending its shadow into every aspect of this unfamiliar story. Though the distinctive clothes and vocabularies of a forgone era have given way to more subtle methods of differentiating class and caste – and accordingly, breadth of smiles and politeness required – the inheritors of the legacy are easy to spot.

The city priest smirks as the woman bends over backwards serving him breakfast after mass. He nods me off as I make a joke about my almost-Hindu-sounding name. There is no laughter. The city doctor smirks as she tells me she is a professional. When I tell her that I find her methods of diagnosis offensive, she tells me she has seen hundreds of me. I’m a replaceable part of her structure. In my village, I’m not.

At home, as we struggle to squander time on one of many harthal days Kerala gifted us, the quintessential “village madman” of a dozen clichéd stories makes his appearance at the porch. He smiles an enormous smile and seats himself on a white wicker chair as my elderly aunt raises her eyebrows. She starts to tell him to sit below the stairs, but stops herself as he drops his chin and yawns her words away.

“Give me a glass of water?” he half-asks after stretching some more. Impressed by his confident disrespect and my usually demure aunt’s current state of shock, I quickly get up to fetch some water. “Make sure you don’t get it in a good glass!” my aunt instructs as I walk into the house.

Wait, what? Nalla glass? What does that even mean? I look back for clarification, but there is no change in expression on either of their faces. Both had gone back to staring into space and yawning and perhaps thinking, the lines on their faces arching their backs. The atrocity of the statement seemed to rest only on me. As my cousin takes over the job I had volunteered for, I think of the hierarchy of kitchenware.

A ten-year old girl knew anger to be synonymous with hurt. It started as a headache that lumped in her throat and made her hands shake. Once in a cramped car with ultra-extended family halfway across the world, an aunt’s ill-fitting heel pressed into her tiny foot and when asked why she was flinching, the hurt rolled into an anger that released a thunderstorm.

Thunderstorms were a defense mechanism. While simple crying could make you vulnerable, the addition of yelling, screaming and stomping left the smallest glimmer of control and thus, a tad bit of dignity. The sacrifice was that the ten-year old with a hurt foot would fail to get sympathy; her tantrum would take the spotlight and everyone would forget the sharpness of the original heel.

Still, this childhood barter was deliberate and for the most part, unregretted. Even though she’d eventually begin to crave for that sympathy, she was almost never, ever ready to trade for vulnerability.

The thunderstorm in the kitchen brewed as rice was served in an American suburb on a Saturday afternoon in 2002, somewhere between our first few months of assimilation and daily helpings of Costco-sized snacks. After serving three pale yellow plates of rice, I was handed a very familiar off-white, non-porcelain, unbreakable one with three flowers on its edge. A very familiar plate. Without being able to verbalize what exactly was wrong with my unsuspecting scoop of rice, I burst into tears and pushed the plate away. This time, there was no tantrum I could throw because even at ten, I knew the atrocity – the absolute absurdity – of the hurt.

Back in the village I still forced myself to consider home, it was this set of plates that were always used by the servants. Off-white, non-porcelain, unbreakable with three blue flowers that never faded. I remembered both its pattern and its connotation. Although I had only seen it on vacations, I had internalized the segregation of kitchenware. And with that, something about my identity.

The man in the framed black and white photo is wearing a crisp white shirt and a white mundu. His cheeks hollow in around a fairly large family nose leading to thin, pursed lips. When he walks out of the frame, his voice bellows into the landscape. Though the ten-year old girl has no memory of him other than the face she was pushed to kiss at a funeral, her childhood barter might have found its roots here. He is said to have loved thunderstorms just as much and the proof of exchange – the lack of sympathy – is apparent in the storytellers’ tones.

These same historians fill their sentences with pride and a kind of distant love – perfected by a culture that masks affection – when they begin stories of how much he helped the community. How he gave rice instead of the much cheaper tapioca to his workers, how they flocked to his house during special occasions, how he lobbied and created the first of everything important in the village. He encouraged their churches even – the storyteller widens her eyes. I don’t ask why he didn’t just invite them to our church instead – I know the answer to that.

The tales of heroism are only somewhat colored by those of his storms. After all, even the god of the Bible is an angry god. Matrimonial advertisements are more likely to use god-fearing than god-loving. And the people of my village are surely god-fearing.

Still beyond him, another man rests his hand on his thigh. I imagine his voice to be deeper, wispier, and louder – somewhat like that of Godfather’s Anjooran or perhaps Lelam’s Aanakaattil Eapachen. His white mundu flows royally as he walks through the rubber fields, matching white hair lending character to his bare brown chest.

The storyteller cleans the face of his golden watch as he pauses for effect: “the man was a legend! He saved the lives of so many people. I still remember the snake-bitten man lying on the porch! Five or six people had carried him here. And all he did was apply some mixture he made and the man – the man opened his eyes!” The storyteller leans back and sighs somewhat ruefully.

“But oh, his anger was dreadful!”

I smile at this new piece of information. Having so much company is validating, I think. The narrator clears his throat again before beginning the anecdote: “His wife would crouch in between vessels in the kitchen and tell the servants to leave. One day, the Pulayan down the street came and asked for some rice. Behind the house, at the kitchen door, of course.” Of course, I sigh. “Ammachi told him there wasn’t any rice left for the day. And god, he got furious! He went straight to the kitchen, took the entire pot of rice and gave it to the Pulayan. In those days, there were so many people she had to feed and yet, his word was it. No one ate that day.” I ask about her – my great-grandmother – but no one seems to know who she was, what she was like, whom she resembled.

When he walks into these tales that loom larger and larger, she becomes nothing more than a shadow; the stories fit their beginnings, middles and ends into the face of a man I’ve never seen.

I think of how we sit in hipster cafes – the kind with the handpainted mugs – on my third cup of chai for the day, writing critiques, learning to critique, critiquing critiques. Our language is filled with a kind of fire ignited only by the most specific combination of cynicism, arrogance and caffeine. The sentence we just wrote could be summarized in two words but we have word limits to fill, so we borrow vocabularies of the left-leaning, schema-questioning, anti-capitalistic, anti-establishment scholars we dabble our teabags over. The cynicism I drink is the same one I sip on as a storyteller delves into tales of my great-grandfather, the same one I sip on as the gardener is handed tea in a steel glass, the same one I sip on as I struggle to decide how to address an old village man who won’t dare utter my name.

It’s disheartening to run out of words for contradictions.

We are the descendants of landlords, I say out loud to my cousin. We have blood on our hands. We were both the heroes and the villains in this story. We carry pieces of old bourgeois dreams. We draw caste lines on kitchen doors and still, on kitchenware.

But then, we give the entire pot of rice, we appeal for generators and tarred roads and cable TV, we give a bit of care and a bit of affection and are given more respect than we should carry. We open our porches and close our bedrooms. We expect gratitude and loyalty from all those we’ve “sent to the Gulf,” “paid for the kids’ educations,” “helped with surgery,” et cetera, et cetera – but give none to those who’ve planted our rubber trees and sapped their juice and cooked our food and cleaned our dirty laundry. We give none and expect much – respect.

And somehow, we need to make peace with this history. We need to make peace with these stories running through our blood and breathed out into clouds that hang above our heads. We need to make peace with contradictions, with the way theory jumps out of paper and becomes a never-ending, heartbreaking maze, and especially, with a world that was much different from ours. 

I think this is what I need to remember. Their world is much much different from mine and the adjectives I choose to throw – casteist, racist, sexist, heteronormative, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera – make little sense and hold no honor to them. And this is neither of our faults.


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