Friday, 16 August 2013

A Matter of Belonging

Fear takes physical form in our neighbourhood in Hyderabad: it is embodied in a man who seems a hundred years old. When he is sighted round the corner, bent and frowning, heading with rapid steps for our cul de sac, we stop playing on the latest mountain of sand or rubble and scoot out of sight behind the houses.

The houses are his, the sand and rubble are his. He is universally known as Tataiyya, or grandfather. The local laws give him the right to evict tenants overnight. If the tenant refuses to leave, he sends thugs who ransack homes and fling belongings into the street. You didn’t want to be on Tataiyya’s wrong side, not if you wanted a roof over you: this has been dinned into us by our parents. We were never to risk his displeasure. My father has been a field geologist and our early life was lived in tents. He says that felt more secure: the tent and the patch of sky above were your own.

There are five houses in the cul de sac. The one we occupy overlooks the big rectangle of dirt around which the houses are built. On our left is a garden with a stone-walled well and guava trees. At the back, a narrow yard with an outdoor latrine. On the right side, a patch of grass in which a drumstick tree stands in one corner, all by itself.

It’s an old-fashioned, two-storied house with flagstone flooring, deep verandahs. A Punjabi joint family has the upper floor. The new daughter-in-law spends all morning practising romantic songs from Hindi movies: first we hear the original played on the record, then her uncertain voice picks up a fragment of the tune, then the record comes back. Late at night, after her husband is home and the rest of the quadrangle has fallen quiet, her voice floats downward, still pinched and off-key: “Tum duur nazar aaye, badi duur nazar aaye…”.

In the room below I lie awake, mystified. Is this romance? On our recently acquired television set, buxom Jamuna in a bandage-tight sari approaches her marital bed to the rhythms of a languorous song. She’s holding a huge glass of milk and as she hands it to Akkineni Nageswara Rao, trembling and simpering, something significant passes between them. I don’t know the meaning of that glance. I don’t know yet that this glass of milk in Telugu movies signifies plenitude, fertility, sex.

Read the rest here, in the Open Magazine

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