Our Ancestors Laugh and Smoke Hookah, Still (Part II)


If you haven’t read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming yet, you should. Michelle weaves the themes of feminism with racial liberation, with optimism and with emotional growth. She braids these paramount ideas together, but the title itself captures the central idea: Persisting Growth.

This earth would be a more harmonious place if world leaders (and world followers – and everyone in between) read and internalized the messages inside Becoming.

Becoming, a gerundive verb, signifies a continuous and unending process—like time itself. Michelle’s autobiography is divided into three sections: Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More. Irrespective of the regrettable fact that Barack Obama failed to marry a Bhagnari, I wonder how this threefold sectioning of Becoming could apply to our Bhagnari family. Namely, I wonder: Who are Bhagnaris as individuals, who are we as a collective and how do we futuristically flourish into “more” as we engage in this process of Becoming?

More importantly, what happens after we become more – is this process linear or cyclical? Is Michelle’s sectioning truly distinct, or is there a porosity that allows for liminal space between these seemingly separate categories that is worth exploring? Literature inevitably leads us down the path of responding to these Michelle-inspired thoughts.

Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Eleven” is an excellent text that allows us to explore these introspective curiosities. I readily used this text in the classroom while I was a school teacher. “Eleven” is a rich narrative that depicts growing up as an unending process rather than a one-directional path with a finite, definitive destination. “Eleven” touches on our curiosities by tracing the birthday of the protagonist of the story who happens to be a young girl turning eleven years old. Cisneros writes:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are – underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is. 

This story has always touched me because it facilitates our right to lean into our unimpressive feelings – our immaturities even. Currently I am 29, but I am not 29. I’m 29 and every other age I have ever been. I’m Saahil now and every other version of Saahil I’ve ever been in the past. I’m every success, every failure, every regret, every surprise, every doubt – everything I have ever been. All this – in just one container.

The message of “Eleven” allows me to pluralize myself. This story complicates the notion of Becoming yet maintains eyebrow-raising simplicity. I see two shortcomings with Cisneros’ paradigm. She counts only in increments of years and she starts with the number one. In doing this, she forgets to consider all the other little wooden dolls that the naked eye doesn’t immediately have access to. For me, seeing the world through this critique makes the past, present and future much, much more interesting and imaginative. Reflecting on this helps me feel peace as my 30th birthday approaches later this month.

This January, I found myself in Bombay going towards Elephanta Island with my friend who was visiting from Nairobi. I wanted to show Malcolm the local history and also show him the cute monkeys that live on, and practically govern, Elephanta. We walked from Shivaji Park to the Matunga Train Station, took the second-class train going south to Churchgate Station, walked through Kala Ghoda and arrived to the Gateway of India.

After the boat passage, we saw several vendors selling tourist souvenirs while walking up the famous stairs. One object in particular caught my eye: the “little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other” as mentioned in Cisneros’ Eleven, although these ones resembled South Asian – not Russian – ladies draped in sarees. I thought back to Cisneros’ story and I knew I had to purchase one. I located the vendor who would sell it to me the cheapest based on my “theek dhaam bolo” said in a really crappy Hindi accent. I purchased one for 200 rupees and we left to go explore the caves, going the wrong way but eventually finding the ticket counter.

The person at the ticket counter attempted to sell me a 600 rupee ticket instead of the local price of 50 rupees. This is when 29-year-old Saahil acted younger than 29 and threw a tantrum. “I’m an OCI” I said, and she immediately responded, “Where’s your ID?” I didn’t have it on me but stoically requested her to charge me the local price. She refused – which was of course completely within her right and power – but I did what was within my right and power: I threw a fit.

In a disillusioned tone I expressed to Malcolm, “I’m going to wait at the bottom of the hill and have a beer, but you should go through the caves and come meet me when you’re done.” We went our separate ways. Malcolm went to the caves and I walked down to the restaurant, took out a notebook, and enjoyed a cool beer while working on my writing. (At the time, I was working on my “Badi Mummy” story – my first contribution to ebhagnaris.in).

I’m not proud of my behavior at Elephanta. I obviously acted stingy and immaturely. Nonetheless, I love my saree-draped desi nesting doll for what she represents. She represents my ancestry. She represents time. She represents memory. She represents Hindu forms of thought that reject naive “tabula rasa” arguments of newborns by wisely acknowledging the samskaras we are born with. I cannot be a tabula rasa – because I am Bhagnari – I am layered.

My saree-draped desi nesting doll reminds me that our Bhagnari ancestors are still laughing and dancing and smoking hookah. They are achieving blissful joy through observing us and we are achieving blissful joy through them. Even when the times get tough, we celebrate ourselves by coming together and expanding our community through inclusion and love. This inclusiveness will take us towards a future filled with more laughter and dancing and hookah. A better future is near. I can almost taste the paan flavor of the shisha.


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