The Gifts of the City Come with Strings Attached

By Srija U

Scenes from Minjur, Tamil Nadu. Photographs by Srija U

(This article was originally published on The Third Eye and can be viewed here.The article was developed as part of The Third Eye's Travel Log mentorship programme.)


I learnt the verbal construction of grammatically correct English sentences for the first time in Class IV when my friends secretly chuckled at my mispronounced words. Until then, I hadn’t realised that my excessive knowledge of Tamil had done nothing to win them over. The convent school in my small town seemed to like my English; what happened along the way? Three months into moving to the city and joining a new school, Raksha, my friend at the time, walked up to me and asked, “Do you want to go to the restroom?” I was puzzled but also curious enough to ask, “We have a restroom in school? Where?” She dragged me there and it hadn’t struck me in the least bit that she was talking about a bathroom. “You new students don’t know anything,” she complained.


I didn’t understand why my grandfather spent an awful amount of time reading Tamil poetry to me if schools were going to punish me for conversing in Tamil. Every day, Thaatha and I sat reading on his creaky bed that was also his storage space for almost everything he owned. A shaving kit with orange razors for which he replaced the blade every month; his diary, cleverly written in writing that was incomprehensible to anyone but him; stacks of paper meticulously arranged and tied with a naada so they stayed in place; his handkerchief that was perpetually dust-stained from cleaning my grandmother’s spectacles; and on the corner of his bed, stacked towards the wall, Tamil books ranging from Kambar, Periyar, Kalki, Jeymohan to Perumal Murugan. My grandfather’s room was a reminder of my home and its eternal struggle with space.


In a middle-class household, space, too, is used frugally. On a busy day, our living room was the kitchen and the bedroom. Limbs moved between walls effortlessly. On days when everything was anything, words offered the comfort of specificity. And in just a few months of reading with Thaatha, I could flip the pages of books as fast as he did. Before I knew it, literature had moved into my home and life, unbothered by the stench of garbage one always got while entering my street.


A month before we left our village for good, I memorised big words from the dictionary—‘exceptional’, ‘pessimistic’ and so on, but my usage of them was perpetually misplaced, and almost always funny. As an eight-year-old, I was, for the most part, excited to move to a city. I was told that things there were different, unbridled even. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that the difference didn’t make any difference because the city too desired sameness, despite its cracks and crevices.


The Second Home


Incidentally, the second house we moved to in Chennai was in a ‘posh’ neighbourhood (I learnt later that ‘posh’ was just a sanitised way of saying upper-caste). The roads flanked by houses here came with the suffix ‘Avenue’ as opposed to the ‘Street’ I was used to. There was a strange sense of exhilaration upon discovering this newfound language. This language was merely an aspiration earlier. I made sure to write my address in capital letters in my school documents lest people mistake it for something else. I had the urge to tell everyone that I too had moved into the city. It didn’t matter that I had in fact lived there for two years.



It was of course of no surprise to me that this façade I had built for myself would fade, since the inside of my house was far from an ‘avenue’. My friends in the neighbourhood had cooks whereas my mother spent three-fourths of her day in the kitchen; her sari smelled like my favourite mutton curry. I made active efforts to seal the windows shut when she cooked. I was afraid the smell would turn into a stench the moment it left my house. Keeping it in also meant keeping everything else out.


Eeshwar, my immediate neighbour, had come knocking at my door one afternoon. We were meant to play hide and seek with the others. I quickly exited my house and pulled the door shut before he could even take a peek in. “Let’s go, let’s go, we’re late!” I said, hurrying him away. When the countdown was about to finish, Eeshwar and Nitya turned to me and said, “Let’s hide in your house. Vijay won’t know because he’s never been there!”


Years later, I didn’t make sense of too many things, but what I was certain of was that I belonged elsewhere. Home seemed like a feeling so alien that I had stopped having people over. When people wanted to get to know me, they asked me where I was ‘from’. The answer to that question was always a justification of behaviours; as if we are nothing but our roots. What would have happened had I admitted that my parents did not speak English? Would humour have taken shame into cognisance then? To admit shame is to acknowledge that it does not only begin at home, it is home. As an eight-year-old, I needed friends in the new city. I was terrified of honesty, so I unlearned my home until there was nothing left but the bare bricks of blame and guilt.


The Third Home


Our third house too was located in the ‘posh area’ of the city, or so my father would say. The chief minister lived as close as five minutes away, but the difference in architecture and luxury was quite stark. Where I lived, lanes merged into each other, several Marutis were parked outside houses that had no space for parking lots, and we would run out of water from time to time. On such days, I stood outside with my grandfather, holding buckets, awaiting municipal lorries that would bring us water. I would look around nervously, praying that my peers from school didn’t find me in that situation.


As a literature graduate, it’s of no surprise that I strongly believe in the inseparability of the private and the public, but how I came to learn of this coalition is not a very pleasant story.

I spent years keeping my friends away from home in the fear that the lack of space would make them feel uncomfortable. We’re not taught that the fear of discomfort is merely a fear of losing our sense of self.

We desire sameness despite its banality because it is comfortable. I thought that to belong in the city I had to practise uniformity and mimic my rich friends even if it meant forgetting and dismissing the space of my home. I resented home and did not forgive my parents for continuing to remember it.


I once again moved to a city for my college, but was surprised to find people settle their discomforts by merely naming them. I was asked if I wanted to go to a Pride parade and upon agreeing, a few friends and I reached the closest metro station. I was told to dress however I wanted to. “But we’re taking public transport, aren’t we?” I said. “So what? If people stare it’s their problem,” a friend retorted. At the metro checking area, I exchanged a quick John Green moment with the guard. “Ladki?” she asked. I nodded and said, “Ladki.” We shared a brief chuckle and I exited from there.


“Why did you laugh?” my friend asked.


“Why not?” I said, puzzled by the question.


“She was trying to misgender you,” she said, concerned.


I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.


I wasn’t sure if I could tell her that being misgendered in a language that wasn’t English felt familiar, comforting even.


Of course, I would have sounded crazy so I kept quiet instead. It is no doubt that queerness is lonely business, but what troubles me perhaps is that we’re still holding onto the aspiration of ‘coming out’. I was asked this by a very close friend recently. “So, when will you come out to your parents?”


“As what?” I retorted.


My response confused her because her imagination of queerness was in a language that keeps reminding me of my difference. We imagine the queer in English and in doing so seal the periphery shut. What language do we desire in and why must it be translated to be heard?


I spent the first few years in the city resenting my mother for bringing me here. I spent the last few years making sure that none of my friends heard her broken English. I had spent enough time punishing my mother for my inadequacies. The more I rolled my Rs, the further I pushed my mother tongue all the way till the back of my throat until it was nothing but a lump. Every gulp is now a reminder of how the city, an imagined destination, abandons all those who fail to mimic sameness. My difference is what keeps me afloat. I belong elsewhere—a place of no destination. And this time, I will remember to keep my door ajar, for friends old and new.


 

About the author


Srija is a former Teaching Fellow in the literature department at Ashoka University. Her research interests focus on the intersection between desire, queerness and forms of literature. She will soon be pursuing a PhD in English from Columbia University.


This article was originally posted on The Third Eye. The Third Eye is a feminist think tank working on the intersections of gender, sexuality, violence, technology and education. It owes its name to pioneering educator Jyotiba Phule’s analogy in Tritiya Ratan, of calling education the third eye through which one views the human condition.


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