The Deadliest Contagion
That first time I watched ‘Gandhi’, one scene followed me out of the theater door: the one with native police and advancing marchers. Row after row, they went down battered and bloodied, and not one of them raised an arm in defense. Martin Luther King Jr. said it was this Salt March movement that deeply influenced his own philosophy of civil disobedience. Gandhi’s handful of salt at Dandi would change the way we read Resistance.
When I was 8 years old we lived in a rental home next to land lady Vanima’s cottage. She wore a 7 yard sari and gold anklets to underline her ‘high’ caste. How we even got to rent their place beats me, but if our shadow so much as fell across them on certain nights/days there was serious ritual cleansing that followed. Vanima would chant out loud, cover her head, and slam her front door against ills that might arrive at her from us. My mother was a teacher and my father worked a few miles away in a coastal town we visited every weekend, but on week days we had to brave our new address. Both our front steps ran together. Curiously, we shared the same walls and well—the projecting concrete brickwork over the top of well just about covered her face from ours. It was ridiculously awkward.
Then we saw miracles. My Ma would choose V’s ‘non auspicious day’ to send her a plate of vegetarian food in our non-vegetarian plates. As the months went into two years, Vanima and my mother grew into chat mates. Ma would tell her dramatic stories about the Red Sea parting and Noah’s flood, with not a tut-tut from the other. Both their husbands worked away from home and these two very different women began to morph into a type of Sister. It was a good time to be women in India—we were decades beyond the Purdah system—if Vanima glared at my older sisters’ Bell bottoms, Ma ignored her. These were the mid ‘70s. We listened to the Beatles on Radio Ceylon, wore skirts and trimmed our hair in layers. V’s daughters began to like all that. We played Ludo and Snakes & Ladders together. Vanima made some killer garlic pickle, ghee rice, and sweet dishes in roasted cashew. When we left for a larger apartment, our Landlady and her two daughters lingered at their gate, waving till we turned the lane and out of sight.
Looking back, I hadn’t dreamed there were a different set of rules between our households and cities. I did a year there before going on to pre degree college closer to home. My father worked in the Ministry of Lights & Shipping; every 3 years there’d be a transfer to another part of India, often remote/ Port stations, some with no stable education.
What happened at Hillpatna House was like tectonic plates shifting deep within centuries of Crust. Change began one brick at a time in those little rooms and the walls between us—like riots that were conceived and borne from fetal fists to adult resistance.
Staring thru’ our HCF
Dad was a rebel and a likeable one. He never broke family ties but he broke some traditional hand-me-downs that he had outgrown. In his family, women and their young “mature” daughters had to wear bangles, flowers in their hair, yes even basic jewelry to declare a certain status. Pews in their church were marked with a brass plate to save their moral seat in the eye of the God they served and the commoners who sat behind them. My father hated these Customs he called Kashtams; translated Troubles, in Tamil. He married a girl (my mother) from another state and mother tongue. I cannot believe how wide a chasm there still is in sections of Society today.
There was a day I went speechless at one particular Shopkeeper. I must have been 17, in a southern state of India. My father’s sister, Aunt Ju, and I were out shopping. I was to join a boarding school in their city and needed essentials. Aunt Ju, had reached a sighing agreement with my non-sari status, my junk jewelry and short untie-able hair with no flower in it. A certain shopkeeper did not share her sentiments. The shop keeper looked me up and down then snarled, “Go wear your sari, then come here.”
Aunt Ju took a deep breath and in steady rugged Tamil asked him why he wasn’t in a dhoti instead of the nice pants he was wearing. Oh, if he thought a sari was safe for girls these days, she said, was he happy about local molesters ogling a sari’s exposed midriff? And why would he wish that on a nice girl like her niece from good family down the lane; weren’t they Patrons to his shop back from when he was still in knickers? The local word for that article of wear is Chaddi, at the mention of which, the shop keeper turned into a worm. My aunt Ju, ferocious in her oiled tiny bun and earrings dangling from stretched ear lobes, got my stationery and talcum powder.
I didn’t think she would let all this just be though. The next day there was a wedding to go to, and she politely asked if I would not get in a green silk sari, matching necklace with ear drops and stringed jasmine in hair. The head yelled No, but my heart softened. It was the first time I wore a proper silk sari to an event like an Indian wedding; my aunt would melt further but not all the way. I was still not allowed to trim nails at night, nor talk at all while having a meal. Though with each visit we all got an inch closer to the other, and I am grateful for that time of seeing how Ju stood up for me—how a woman with years of tradition woven into her, became a Force that shut down a common bully.
Without warning Taboos resurface like a stink because a person’s conscience has been numbed by habit. Fires we’ve been putting out from the last century re-kindle with one little stoke. Racism, casteism rear their ugly head. ‘Honor’ killings, dowry demands/ deaths…. medieval practices re-visit. We hear rumors of Sati*, what that is, hurts to even explain! Female infanticide, caste discrimination, they hide their nakedness in excuses of tradition.
Now look at us all in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Our physical rhetoric blazes—we’ve turned into eagles and lions and bears. Our mothers taught us to pray, speak gently, mind our manners, not hoard, not steal, kill, or destroy, but this we know too—that not everyone cares about equal rights. Here we are in the worst of times and our best. The cauliflower vendor, CEO, and first grader are all exposed to naked truths of human kindness and unkindness. From bartenders to Uncle Po and Auntie Ka, we are each unique Influencers. Peace is an Essential commodity like never before in a world that changed overnight with Covid and Mr. Floyd. Let’s admit we are tougher than we are shocked.
Our kids ask existential questions: What is life if we cannot go out to play? We wonder too. We are not too shy anymore to pray out loud or look closer at each other. We’re changing so fast, we cannot go back. We are factually nicer. Ach. This is new. If one of us could not breathe, we all choke. Change arrived like a thief in the night. One Virus turned our 7 billion into two letters: Us. It is a wave that will not recede without taking some of our old territorial barbed wire with it. We share the Highest Common Factor: Human frailty. When we come together, we are the Resistance we dream of.
On that 241 mile march Gandhi led in 1930 denouncing the Salt Tax and proceeding to manually make a nation’s own salt in the Arabian Sea, he not only shook an empire, he even impacted people who did not like him, including Winston Churchill, who referred to Gandhi as a ‘half naked fakir’. Gandhi took that as a compliment, said he felt unworthy of being called a fakir (a poor man), or a naked one, ‘…a more difficult task!’ He then implored Churchill, “Trust and use me for the sake of your people and mine, and through them those of the world.” Churchill later admitted that the protests and aftermath had “inflicted such humiliation and defiance as has not been known since the British first trod the soil of India.” Some 80,000 people were arrested or beaten in the spree of civil disobedience. Time Magazine would name Gandhi, in its 1930 Edition, as “Man of the Year.”
One skinny man’s trek to Dandi was more than about a handful of salt; it was the stinging Taste of Non-violent Resistance in a Menu of Oppression. The salt of that message hasn’t lost it savor; it would kick in events like deadly dominoes backwards, forwards, and sideways.
Rayla Noel is a Broadcaster turned Freelance Writer, Artist. Her series of painting and written work featured in ‘Asha- journey of Hope’ for trauma victims; ‘Waiting to Dance’ in Poetry of British Indian Diaspora, ‘Indian Village’ and ‘Girl Child’ in Personality, Mumbai, & her poems in Poesy India. She has written, produced 4 Musicals and an album. Currently manuscripting a book on burns/ suicide survivors, for a local Organization, Rayla’s past work in slums of Borivali lends to her viewpoint, as well as her blind son who loves Light. She lives in Bangalore, India with her husband and children. Blogs athttp://innerdialects.home.blog
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