Mangalore looks like one giant fractal when seen from the skies. Each smaller fractal unraveling itself as we get closer to the runaway. It’s coconut trees as far as the eye can see, dried up river beds and mud roads that no one drives on.
The menu for the week ahead has been decided on Sunday evening. Monday, stingray and dal with bimbli. Tuesday, shark. Wednesday, squid. Thursday, mango curry. Friday, shrimp. Saturday, chorizo. Sunday, pork offal.
Monday morning, I understand first-hand why the parents are wary of the BJP in Mangalore. At the grassroots, BJP hasn’t distanced itself from their communal agenda that’s exclusively biased towards the Hindu voter.
BJP’s local wing came around to distribute voter’s slips but ignored our house. Mom called out, “We vote as well!” The nextdoor teen who was part of this brigade came by later to hand over the slips. His macho BJP gang would rather not woo Christian voters.
Monday evening, there’s a light breeze but the stickiness of the Mangalorean heat never leaves. A choir of young girls accompanied by an amateur violinist are practising for the upcoming Easter mass, the hymns dotted with the staccatos of a piano being tuned. The leaves rustle, it’s the two birds that have made their nest in the shrubbery of the orange jasmine coming at the end of a long day. The air is filled with the distinctive aroma of a Mangalorean Chicken Curry being cooked. It’s an overwhelming mix of chicken fat, coconut milk and bafat powder.
In this tiny little neighbourhood, It’s hard to not drown in the “archipelago of tongues.” The incessant chirping of the birds that visit Dad’s garden only adds to this cacophony of languages.
It’s a Christian neighbourhood there’s Konkani everywhere. Konkani is the tongue of emotion. Of love, prayer, anger, disgust, indignation and outrageous gossip. In the early morning rush of kids running to school, in the lunchtime menus and recipes exchanged over fences, it’s the evening rosary that’s a funereal wail.
Kannada is for the underlings and the strangers who deserve politeness. I can hear the househelps’ Bagalkot Kannada meet the local dialect. It’s the sound of delays in the housework, of risky propositions - clothes being hung out to dry when the sky is overcast with rain bearing clouds. It’s also the neighbourhood gossip cloaked as conversation. The polite stories of those who don’t matter are heard in Kannada. These will soon be repeated in Konkani.
Tulu is for the overlords, the powerful and the friends from the alley when you’ve thrown back a few drinks and confidence has made way for arrogance. In its street avatar, it’s taunting and mocking. My untrained ear associates it with drunk men on the road. It’s brawn and brusque. Perhaps that’s why it’s also the language of comedies on Mangalore TV, those that are so reminiscent of PTV in the early 90’s. Its rough edges can only be softened by the kori roti that Pallavi and her Mom discuss in their sweet lilting Tulu.
Wednesday evening, I can feel the smoke stinging my eyes before I can smell it. The neighbourhood is burning incense to ward off mosquitos. The next evening, the priest will burn it during mass and then wave it in the general direction of the crowd. Who said the Catholic rituals aren’t paganistic in their origin and intent?
We planned to get to the polling booth at 7 am. A neighbour tells us there are long queues and these well-laid plans are promptly pushed out to a less humid hour. We make it to the booth at 10.10 am. In under seven minutes, we’ve voted, got our fingers inked and made our way back to the car. If only this efficiency wasn’t limited to the national elections…
We soon find ourselves at Big Bazaar which is giving away 10% discounts to anyone who turns up at the counter with an inked finger. Wonder how many went in to vote just so they could avail this offer.
For lunch, the mother has made mango curry. No guessing which party she voted for. The mango is sweet, the gravy thickened with ground urad dal. Are warm sickly sweet mangos to be eaten in peak summers? I know I’d prefer a cold glass of mango juice. I can’t say these things out aloud lest they offend Mom who’s relishing every last drop of that gravy.
Keeping with the tone of the debates (outrage! outrage!) on Times Now, the dinner-time conversation moves towards the controversial handouts. One Christian lady in the neighbourhood brings home 10 kgs of rice for Rs 100 from the ration store. She feeds it to her dogs. Somebody else is buying dal and rice from teachers at schools that serve mid-day meals.
Local entrepreneurship at its worst, we’re at our outraged best. It’s been less than 10 hours since most of my family voted for the Congress.
All through the week I’ve been babysitting the grandmother. It’s an easy sell: The parents don’t have to be embarrassed by my absence at church. It’s replaced by a sense of pride, the grand-daughter is caring for the grandmother. They use the word “saakri” to describe the simple act of spending time with my grandparents. Saakri elevates care-taking to the level of dharma and karma. It’s what disciplined people with a conscience do - it’s a good deed and penance rolled into one.
Grandpa had stories from the time of independence and I had stories about food, alcohol and travel. I prefer Grandmother’s stories to the sermons delivered by sanctimonious celibate men in church. Unlike my grandpa, she would rather not use her intelligence when deferring matters to God. But that’s ok. I enjoy her company - my time with her is peppered with coffee, loads of delicious Mangalorean food that my Mom doesn’t make and lessons in Kannada.
By Sunday evening, I was impatient to get back to Bangalore and stuff my face with ghee cake from Cochin Bakery. It will be 3 months before I visit Mangalore again. By then it will be monsoon and the rains fix everything. Almost.