Love is like Thayir Sadam!

Like every community, Tamil Brahmins have their own quirky customs and practices that are seldom recorded in literature. In RK Narayan, you’ll find references to these embedded without tags and only understood by the Tambrams, as some like to call the community, and perhaps in some translated works.

But Bharati Jagannathan’s collection of short stories “A Spoon of Quark” not only recalls some of the rapidly disappearing aspects of the so-called tambram lifestyle, but also examines how her pious and ritual existence copes with the tsunami of modernity and progress she is in away from home drifted the pockets of northern India and overseas.

The fact that Bharati has no intention of producing stereotypical portraits of the community is evident in her focus on women. Almost all 13 stories show how women deal with the expectations of a conservative family and how the changed environment has enabled some of them to free themselves.

A canvas of customs

Bharati raises the reader’s expectations with the first story, ‘Grihapravesham’, in which Viji, returning to her parents’ house in Delhi after six months of torture by her husband, finds her life in contrast to that of her friend and neighbor Renuka, who decides to break her 20-year marriage over an affair her husband had years ago after long deliberation. After Renuka’s mother passed away and Viji’s parents got older, the two women look forward to a future of camaraderie in old age. It’s only when you go through a hundred pages and finish the story ‘The Prime Of Janaki Ammal’ that you actually wonder if Renuka hinted at something more intimate than friendship in the first story.

The stories look bolder than Bharati paints them on the canvas of ancient customs and idiosyncrasies that can only be found in Brahmin households. The ‘Athai Pati’ (in ‘A Match for Meenatchi’), the ubiquitous grandmother in families who insists on home remedies and unshakable customs, is an all-too-familiar character; A version of it would have existed in many traditional families.

The meticulousness of his grandfather in “In Memoriam”, reading the obituary notices and investigating whether the deceased was someone he had known in the past, is also known. The many old invitations and portraits of gods from old calendars can represent a life well lived and at the same time indicate the futility of memory itself, especially since they would die with the person.

Even in a story that is nothing more than a poignant portrait, Bharati dares to show how women who shrink into a corner in old age recognize the changed environment of their grandchildren.

“The world is not the same”, the grandmother demonstrates to her older husband in “In Memoriam”. “Today they can even replace a person’s heart, and tomorrow our own Gayatri could invent something new. Young people these days learn all sorts of things that weren’t there in college. ‘“

An open attitude

The women’s struggles also vary from enormous – managing a husband and lover in “debt” – to temporary but no less serious battles such as in “Night Bus to Srivilliputhur” where a young Delhi reporter has to debate it despite the urgency to a public toilet.

The openness with which Bharati addresses the subject of sex in both “Guilt” and “In Black and White” is refreshing. Even in the seemingly modernized community, sex remains a taboo that can at best be referred to in arcane euphemisms. Despite the boldness of her imagination, Bharati approaches the subject in these two stories with sensitivity.

But “Lavender Orchids” and “The Prime of Janaki Ammal” are in a different league. Not only because the author introduces the reader quite creepily to cross-dressing and lesbianism, but also in how she challenges us to take a look at how modern environments might empower people to be themselves.

For example, could Janaki Ammal, who follows the age-old custom of letting her son tear the wedding thread 10 days after her husband’s death to announce her widowhood, protect her granddaughter and her lesbian partner from the unforgiving family? Should Varsha have told her mother that Ashok’s cross-dressing can no longer be a secret and that she is actually planning to break her marriage (even though her mother is thinking of postpartum depression)?

Carefree too

Presenting unconventional situations does not mean that the author sacrifices light-heartedness. Imagine a daughter who, years after she died single, toyed with the idea of ​​her 63-year-old mother marrying a retired brigadier and living in his house as a woman? The author plays around with the deliciousness of irony, while the mother, although firmly convinced that the world is an illusion, takes into account the love interest of her ex-officer friend.

Despite the boldness of imagination, Bharati does not come across as a dissident or someone who is too insensitive to tradition. By the time you close this book you will not disregard customs and conventions, but you will understand that at least as a link to the past they persist.

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