This Indian Life by Shoba Narayan: What colour is your chocolate?
As I said in my last column, my niece Sumi is gender fluid. My extended clan went through the usual routine: uproar, gossip, blame, shame, self-doubt, and smug rationalisations. Relatives played ostrich. They called Sumi’s harried parents, hoping for gossip and tears. There were endless repetitions of “I cannot believe this is happening in our family.”
Finally, they stood in shock when a Facebook update announced that Sumi was engaged to Kalyani Sharma. The peppy post said that “They/Them would be delighted if you can join in the wedding festivities.”
At least Sumi picked a Brahmin girl, said one aunt.
Okay, let me admit it. My family is full of small-minded, hypocritical, ignorant, bigoted, conservative elders who see the world in black and white.
A case in point is Sumi’s grandfather, my uncle Subbu. He called me out of the blue one day and said, “You are an English student. You better tell our Sumi that “they/them” is not good grammar.”
Subbu Mama is 77 years old. He has lived his entire life in Matunga. He comes from a family whose idea of impurity is crossing the seas. Subbu Mama thinks he is a liberal iconoclast because he crossed the sea to Alibaug for a Diwali party. The Matunga vegetable market and Mysore Concerns coffee is his world. He reads a Tamil paper, Dinamalar, every morning, clad in a veshti (dhoti). He also bought me my first fountain pen and read all the poems I wrote as a 14-year-old. I love this man even if I don’t always agree with him.
So the next time I was in Mumbai, I took Subbu Mama to Shanmukhananda Hall for an Aruna Sairam concert. We were early so we grabbed a filter coffee from the canteen and sat down.
“Did you see the email?” asked Subbu Mama casually. “From Sumi? About her engagement? With that Kalyani or whoever.”
I nodded, wondering where this was going.
“Why don’t you advise my granddaughter?” asked Subbu Mama.
“About what?” I asked. “It is a happy occasion.”
Subbu Mama sighed. “The whole world is enjoying milk chocolate and this child is going dark,” he said.
I stared at Subbu Mama. Did he know what he was talking about? I decided to extend the metaphor.
“There is nothing wrong with dark chocolate, Subbu Mama,” I said. “You have to move with the times. In fact, these days, people are enjoying all kinds of chocolate – with sea salt, chili powder, hazelnut.”
“Maybe, but milk chocolate is the best. It is what normal people eat, no?”
“What is normal, Subbu Mama? These days, anything goes.”
“That is the problem. These children think everything is normal. But there are rules. And traditions. Why do we eat idli with chutney? Why not eat it with Parmesan cheese?” (He pronounced Parmesan like it rhymed with Natesan.)
I shrugged. “Times change.”
“I just wish that Sumi would just... be normal and enjoy milk chocolate,” he said.
I shook my head. “Normal is an outdated concept, Subbu Mama.”
There was a pause. Somewhere in the auditorium, a young girl was doing her riyaaz (practice).
“Her Hindolam (Malkauns) is really nice,” said Subbu Mama. “But that last phrase was a bit off key.”
I said nothing. I desperately wanted to make Subbu Mama accept his granddaughter’s choices, to make peace with them. How to do this when he insisted on talking about chocolate?
“Haven’t you tried dark chocolate?” I asked.
Subbu Mama sighed. “To think this would happen in our family. What have we done to deserve this?”
“Oh come on. Don’t be so dramatic. Chocolate is chocolate after all.”
Truth be told, I felt bad for Subbu Mama. Was it good that Sumi discovered who she really was? Yes. Was it good that she told our family? Yes. Did she have to announce it on social media? No. At least that’s what I thought. The way to do it was to sit her beloved grandfather down and explain it in person. Not over a loudspeaker like Facebook update.
“I have tried dark chocolate,” Subbu Mama said in a soft voice. “A long time ago. I am not proud of it. A Nair girl in my college….” He trailed off.
“What are you saying?” I burst out.
Subbu Mama smiled sheepishly. “In our time, we did these things... in secret,” he said. “Not like Sumi – announcing to the world before telling your parents and grandparents.”
“So why didn’t you marry this Nair girl?”
“Impossible,” Subbu Mama said. “It just wasn’t done in our family.”
He sighed. Did he still think of the Nair girl, I wondered.
“Come come. Let’s go listen to the kutcheri (concert). And have some dark chocolate,” he said with an impish smile. “In honour of my granddaughter.”
Love did triumph after all. In his own way, Subbu Mama was accepting his beloved granddaughter’s choice.
(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)
This Indian Life appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, January 19, 2020
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