What is it that makes us chase what we prioritize as the needful?
Passion. What is that passion? What are the things I have a passion for? Truth maybe. Forgiveness maybe. That is a clichéÌ. What is Truth? Reality. What is reality? Reality and Truth, are they the same? To me, reality is the means through which I can conclude a truth. Answer to the later question is, no.
'You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold on to all that? And I said, Where can I put it down?
She shifted to a question about airports’
- Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony and God.
Performance art has been a life saver for me.
Gas lighted, bullied and discriminated by my mother ever since I can remember, it has been a struggle to unlearn a lot of things, especially once I came across a completely new reality as an adult. We have a strained relationship even now, my mother and I. Forgiving a parent when they refuse to accept the pain caused and the damage done is a difficult endeavour. Going back into the past in my memory and digging for the reality and trying to find the truth became a routine; I do not even remember since when. It is terribly arduous and tiring. My performance art series ‘Repair’ gives this mental routine a physical form.
Rice has always been staple food from my childhood, as also in most of South India. It isn’t any different in my home town Madikeri, a small blip in the district of Kodagu, a hill station in South Karnataka. Kodagu is coffee country, a lot of the lifestyles and economy revolves around coffee plantations, and off late, around the all-pervasive tourism. Cooked plain rice is regularly eaten, at least twice a day, for lunch and dinner, usually with a curry and a side, both either vegetarian and/or meat based. In a Kodava household like mine, it used to be mostly non-vegetarian.
Kodavas are an indigenous tribal community that’s in the minority in the district. The Kodava dialect is an amalgamation of the languages spoken in the states surrounding this hill station and does not have a script. We are ancestor-worshippers; we love our meat, the pandi curry, or pork curry accentuated by a especially tart tamarind that is found in these parts, is almost a signature dish of the community.
I grew up in a ‘middle-class’ family. Or so we were told by our parents who owned some acres of ancestral property where cardamom and coffee was grown. My father never carried on with the family plantation business. Hence our nuclear family did not have any other income other than my parents’ school teacher salaries every month. This small income living did not in any way lessen their ‘blue blood’ snobbery when it came to choice of food though. I do not remember going without non-vegetarian food or a baked savoury as an evening snack with tea any day of the week. It was only in the late 1990’s that I remember becoming addicted to Maggie – mass produced instant noodles – and pestering them to buy it for my brother and I for our evening snacks. Our mother would make it grudgingly, though not without grumbling about the bad effect it could have on our health.
Parties held at home would always have numerous dishes. But for me as a child, even till date, a portion of plain rice, a curry and a side dish would suffice. No second servings. This was something that angered my mother. I would be told that I had probably been born into this blue blooded family by mistake, for I did not know how to enjoy and relish food. This kind of statement, phrased and paraphrased in different ways was how my mother’s bullying was directed at me while I was growing up. I was admonished if I protested and told her that she hurt me with her words. She would say ‘oh you are so weak you cannot take a joke’, ‘You are so fragile, you have no sense of humour’.
It took me 23 to 24 years of my life to understand and analyse, dissect reality and truth. Another 7 years to let the reality sink in and truth to be told through my performance art.
When I sat down to write a proposal for a performance art festival in November 2015, this question, ‘What is it that makes us chase what we prioritize as the needful?’ had got me thinking. Reality and truth were the two words that came to my mind.
Reality: My mother never was/is my best friend.
Truth: We will never be friends.
Rice: It was/is the food that helps me through whenever I had/have ill health and it makes me happy/content eating it anytime. It has been and is a singular consistent life line. Counting the rice grains makes me realise how strong and consistent this life line of mine is. Cooked rice is inseparable from childhood memories of my relationship with my mother.
The act of counting just a fist full of rice requires immense amount of concentration. An action of defiance? Maybe. An act that helps me with the process of self-acceptance? Yes. I still prefer plain rice over any number of exquisite dishes you might make. Self-acceptance and healing.
My first public performance of counting rice was in Israel, in late 2015. A workshop exercise asked us to choose an item from our surroundings that we associated with our childhood. Naturally I picked rice.
Many more performances down since 2015, I came across Marina Abramovic’s exercise of counting rice for hours together, sometime in 2016. While she called it the ‘Abramovic method’, I had already named my performance series ‘Repair’. I had been blissfully oblivious to the celebrity artist’s exercise.
I have been ‘repairing’ myself, perhaps from 2011 onward. I had begun understanding the truth by then, though it had not yet fully sunk in. Reality had seeped in and drowned me, when my father had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year. My relationship with my mother was bitter, as always. It grew even more so and took a turn for the worse when my father was ailing.
Why was/is my relationship bitter with my mother? It never ever had been otherwise to begin with. I have a strong memory of the time I was first ‘abandoned’ as a baby by her because she had to go back to work after her maternity leave. This memory of mine is something like how Tengo has this special memory of his mother. Tengo, the protagonist in Murakami’s novel 1Q84, has a memory of his mother from when he was a toddler. He remembers his mother going to bed with a man who was not Tengo’s father, foggy as the memory itself might be. It has etched itself deep in his mind because he had not liked it that he had had to share his mother, her breasts that had fed him, with an unknown man. This is so embedded so deeply that later in his teens and as an adult he finds himself always attracted to older women. Something like Oedipus, but not quite exactly that.
Another fictional character that remembers incidents from his toddler years and later is influenced/affected unconsciously by it is Dexter Morgan from Jeff Lindsay’s novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter.
Toddlers remember. Yes, they do.
I was left in the hands of our nanny. I remember my mother stopping my father from picking me up. This took place in the bedroom, they were standing close to the door and I was in the arms of the nanny sitting inside the room. They were about to leave for work, father wanted to cuddle and console me, mother stopped him in his track, maybe because they were getting late? I don’t know.
I don’t have too many memories of her being affectionate towards me. The one time I remember her having been genuinely caring was when I was 14 or 15 years old and was suffering from common cold and cough. In the middle of the night she woke up, heard me coughing uncontrollably and came into my room to see how I was doing. She kissed my forehead and comforted me, saying that I would recover fast and brought me some hot water to drink. Why do I remember it so clearly? Probably because that was one of her few outwardly affectionate gestures towards me. I can count such instances on one hand.
Reality: Mothers don’t have to be their daughter’s best friend.
Truth: Everyone does not want to be a ‘mother’ and I am not at all sure mine wanted to be one. As much as the thought hurts, I can empathise and sympathise with her.
I recently learnt of some incidents from her childhood, from a cousin of mine.
The capacity to empathise isn’t as ‘great and noble’ as it is made to sound in theory.
Empathy can be a bitch.
While counting rice, I lose the sequence of the numbers many times. I go for it again, starting over and over. I pick up a fist full, place it aside and start counting. When I lose my place in the sequence of the numbers, I start over. This is how it has been for the past eight years. I think of my relationship dynamics with my mother, think of all those years, arrange my memories and rearrange them.
Each time I count rice it is the same, yet it isn’t.
One of the Repair performances I did recently was at an art centre in Morni Hills, up north near New Delhi, without any audience or documentation. I sat alone on one of the hills there. A white piece of cloth contained my rice grains. I had spread it out in front of me. I began counting the rice grains. As soon as I began, some tiny black ants marched onto the white cloth and began carrying away the rice grains, one at a time. The emotions that surged during that performance are inexplicable. I had a small dose of anxiety attack, yet I continued my counting. The anxiety kicked in because I was watching the ants carry my memories/rice grains. I did not want them to.
I don’t know who I will be if I did not have those memories.
Yet it was comforting to see them carry the grains away. Anxiety, happiness, sadness, frustration, euphoria even. I finally ended up crying. It is a performance I treasure now in my memory.
The act of counting rice is a meditative one, and brings to the surface memories, several of which that my mind had blocked for all these years. I do not want to let my mind block them anymore because unpleasant memories don’t stay buried permanently. All they need is a trigger to resurface at an unwanted time.
Counting rice is an act that gives a physical form to these memories, consciously and thoughtfully. The act of counting rice helps me unblock. It is not an attempt to ‘normalize’ my whole childhood. Instead it consciously reminds me that it was anything but ‘normal.’
Reality: There is nothing in the world that is ‘normal.’
Truth: The word ‘normal’ is an oxymoron.
When in school, every morning when I heard the azan from a distance, I knew that my father would come to wake me up in a few more minutes. He would cajole and cuddle to convince me to wake up and brush my teeth. This azan that I always heard and then my father being there always to wake me up in the mornings are a few of the strong, beautiful and fond memories I have of ‘home’.
A long time ago the azan one morning sounded different. Never again would I hear it sung so beautifully again. It was soothing, healing.
I yearn to hear that exact azan, that exact voice singing that exact same azan.