Today you came over to dinner for the first time
You not only came you forgot your caste and came
Usually women don’t forget that tradition of inequality
But you came with a mind large as the sky to my pocket size house
I thought you had ripped all those caste things
You came bridging that chasm that divides us
Truly friend I was really happy
With the naïve devotion of Shabari I arranged the food on your plate
But the moment you looked at the plate your face changed
With a smirk you said Oh My – Do you serve chutny koshambir this way?
You still don’t know how to serve food
Truly you folk will never improve.
I was ashamed really ashamed
My hand which had just touched the sky was knocked down I was silent
Toward the end of the meal you asked
What’s this? Don’t you serve buttermilk or yoghurt with the last course of rice?
Oh My Dear we can’t do without that…
The last bit of my courage fell away like a falling star
I was sad then numb
But the next moment I came back to life
A stone dropped in the water stirs up things on the bottom
So my memories swam up in my mind
Dear Friend – You ask about buttermilk and yoghurt
What/How shall I tell you?
You know in my childhood we didn’t even have milk for tea much less yoghurt or buttermilk
My mother cooked on sawdust she brought from the lumberyard wiping away the smoke
from her eyes
Every once in a while we might get garlic chutny on coarse bread
Otherwise we just ate bread crumbled in water
Dear Friend – Shrikhand was not even a word in our vocabulary
My nose had never smelled the fragrance of ghee
My tongue had never tasted halva basundi
Dear Friend – You have not discarded your tradition
Its roots go deep in your mind
And that’s true true true
Friend – There’s yoghurt on the last course of rice
Today the arrangement of food on your plate was not properly ordered
Are you going to tell me what mistakes I made?
Are you going to tell me my mistakes?
’Bosom Friend’ forms a part of a collection of poems called Phiyad (1984). As the title suggests, this poem is about a very good friend, a woman friend, who accepts the poet’s invitation for dinner and visits her for the first time.
The first paragraph expresses the poet’s surprise as well as her admiration and gratitude for this friend who seems to have broken through the caste and traditional barriers to reach out to her untouchable friend. This friend, who obviously is from a higher caste, surprises the poet because women, who are actually the worst victims of oppressive traditions, are often the most orthodox defenders of the same traditions. The poet is overwhelmed by this magnanimous gesture and the courage shown by her friend. Her own small existence is marked by her pocket-sized house.
But the optimism, the expectations raised by this apparent magnanimity of the friend is belied in the second paragraph. The poet is grateful that her friend has reached out to her, bridging the chasm of social norms that has kept them apart till now. The emotional and psychological divide, products of the caste and social divide, are bridged, at least for a moment, between the two friends. The poet’s gratitude for this gesture from her friend is beautifully captured in the image of Shabari, the tribal woman who, in her devotion to Lord Rama, tasted each of the berries she offered him; to ensure that they were indeed sweet. The poet’s love, devotion and gratitude is, perhaps, naive like that of Shabari. But her expectations are shattered the moment she offers food to her friend. The friend smirks at the way the food is arranged and promptly reproaches the poet for her inability to serve food the way upper caste people do.
This heartless reproach reopens the chasm that was bridged for some time with the friend’s visit. This us and them divide, it seems, has much deeper roots. Identities which are built up on the notions of pure/impure need much more than a visit to be merged into one human identity. The poet now turns inwards with this reproach. The poet’s out-stretched hands, which had touched the sky of freedom, freedom from her caste bondage, find rejection. She feels ashamed. A further reproach from the friend for not serving buttermilk makes her sad and speechless. The sky, a symbol of hope and freedom, which was within reach a moment ago recedes back. The hurt, almost a betrayal, stirs up memories of loss and deprivation.
The poet wakes up to the reality of her existence which she had forgotten for a moment in a state of heightened expectation, triggered by the visit of this friend. Though she now leads a middle- class existence, her past is marked by deprivation and struggle.
An existence marked by much deprivation leaves its mark on the mind and shapes habits of thought which are difficult to shake off. This is something that the friend cannot understand because she is far removed from this experience due to her privileged position in society. There is a slight reproach along with a sense of hurt in the poet’s tone in the third paragraph.
The last few lines, in an ironic shift talk about habits of mind. But this line is about the friend who, while pretending to treat the poet as an equal, still, treats her as an unequal. The friend’s reproach that ‘Truly, you folk will never change’ turns back on her in an ironic reversal. Though she had accepted the poet’s invitation and visited her house, in apparent disregard for caste or tradition, she still carries the baggage of her tradition in her mind.
Though this friend has crossed the physical threshold of caste she still carries it in her mind. She has recreated the emotional and psychological divide once again within the poet’s house. The ‘you’ in her phrase ‘you folk will never improve’ once again imprisons the poet within a predefined psycho-social space and simultaneously redefines her self in opposition to the poet’s identity. She denies the poet’s essential humanity by formulating her in a fixed communal identity. And all this because, ‘Today the arrangement of food on your plate was not properly ordered’.
The poem ends with a couple of theoretical questions;
Are you going to tell me what Mistakes I made?
Are you going to tell me my Mistake ?
These questions carry within them a reproach as well as a challenge. These questions also put this visit in its real perspective. Friends visit each other to share, to be together in an emotional and social bond and not to find faults. This friend makes the visit but retains her sense of superiority. The attitude displayed by this friend in symptomatic of a larger problem that simply cannot be resolved by empty gestures like this visit. The chasm of caste that divides people, that sets people up in a hierarchy can only change when we change habits of thought. This divide can only be bridged in a spirit of accommodation and understanding, by accepting alternate realities and alternate identities.