On a bus ride home, chutney sandwiches and author Anais Nin’s ‘Birth’ turn into metaphors for the ever evolving identity of a writer
Anais Nin’s piece, ‘Birth’, is a fantastic account of her birthing of herself as a writer and an artist. Imaging/Ravi Jadhav
"Chutney sandwiches are nostalgia bombs," was my articulate friend, Abigail's comment to my Facebook status update, which read: "You can take the girl out of Bombay, or the girl can take herself out of Bombay, but you can't take away her undying, always reborn love of chutney sandwiches, yes, from childhood, with a splatter of butter, and the perfect ratio of coriander, coconut and lime, the way my father makes it." The post was inspired by the leftover flavour of the last sandwich I had just devoured, from the stash my folks packed for me for my bus ride from Bombay to Goa. It was with great difficulty that I had managed to save this last one so I could relish it in peace when I finally had returned to my room at the HH Art Spaces by 8.15 am.
The bus ride from Goa had been insanely bumpy, despite the rather luxurious Kaloji Travels bus I was on. Though I swore mid-way that I would take a flight or a train back, when it came to booking tickets, I was so lured by the ridiculously cheap price of the bus ticket - only Rs 700 as against the Rs 4,000+ flight fare - I chose to put my body through the same ordeal as I returned to Goa two days later, part of my effort to live frugally, given my current state of unemployment.
But the trip back was amazingly comfortable, since the bus spent a lot of time on the Mumbai-Pune road, which is flatter, and since I had managed to get a seat ahead — 10L. I caught up on several levels of Candy Crush, and when I tired of it, decided to whip out my newly acquired Kindle Paperwhite and read my most recent purchase: The Portable Anais Nin. I was blown away by one account from one of her unexpurgated diaries. It was originally titled 'Abortion', but Nin later repurposed it in the form of a fictional story she called 'Birth', ironic, because the piece recounts the debilitating experience of her having to push out a six-month still-born child out of her very diminutive frame, during which she even constructs a monologue to the never-to-be-born child. It is in fact a fantastic account of her birthing of herself as a writer and an artist, one of the most courageous I have encountered, and so ahead of its time in many ways. She is surrounded by more love than she ever imagined she was entitled to, even though the doctor and the nurses are projecting upon her body their own frustrations with her inability to shove the child out of her. "Push! Push! Push with all your strength! I pushed with anger, with despair, with frenzy, with the feeling that I would die pushing, as one exhales the last breath, that I would push out everything inside of me; and my soul with all the blood around it, and the sinews with my heart inside of them would choke, and my body itself would open and smoke would rise, and I would feel the ultimate incision of death," she writes. The doctor and nurses are awestruck when she asks to see her still-born child. But Nin confronts this mass of flesh that has emerged out of her fearlessly. "A dead creation, my first dead creation. The failure of my motherhood, or at least the embodiment of it, the abdication of one kind of motherhood for the sake of a higher one," she writes. Later, she speaks of her strange sense of communion with a Godly being. "I was born. I was born woman. To love God and to love man supremely and separately. I was born to a great quietude, a super-human joy above and beyond all my human sorrows, transcending pain and tragedy. This joy I found in love of man and in creation, completed in communion."
Between my departure and arrival between the two spaces I continue to call home; Bombay and Goa, I felt a great transformation afoot within me. It had much to do with the longer duration of the bus ride, as against the efficiency of a flight. The chutney sandwiches triggered memories of similar rides I had taken as a child, with my parents, as we journeyed to Goa so my mother could introduce us to our roots, never realising that the chutney in the sandwiches actually already embodied those roots. It had everything to do with the addition of coconut, the ingredient that made the condiment uniquely Goan.
Birthing oneself is a solitary experience. Becoming a writer is intimately tied to the process of "letting oneself happen," the consequence of both time and circumstance. The chutney became a metaphor for my identity, and I know, since it was my father's creation, that there'd forever be an element of mystery around it, because his culinary interventions always precluded intuitive secrets. By the time I returned and sat at my desk, I felt like I had re-emerged as a writer, my identity not intact but conscious of its constant state of evolution. Abby was so right. Chutney sandwiches are nostalgia bombs.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org