Bhaunri – A tale of obsession and endless desire

Human emotions are difficult to decipher, predict or even analyse. We’re complex beings and constantly evolving. Nothing brings this point to the fore like the tale of Bhaunri by Anukrti Upadhyay, who spun a story so wonderful in the desert lands of Rajasthan, it left me thinking for a long time even after I was done with it.

At the very heart of this novel lies the story of the twisted fate of a family and its members, most notably the newest, Bhaunri, who belonged to the nomadic clans of Gadoliya Lohars.

The story begins with Bhaunri’s mother, a strong female character, whose family had gotten a large bride-price for marrying her off to a Gujjar chieftan. But as he was unable to satisfy her sexually, Bhaunri’s mother ran away with a young blacksmith. Even when her family came after them, ranting and shouting at her, she stood her ground. She wanted to have nothing to do with a rich man who was a husband only ‘in name’.

Bhaunri was her fifth child, a girl after four boys. Brought up with her brothers, working and playing side by side, she not only learned her father’s craft, but also helped her mother around the house.

When she was a young girl, she was married off to a blacksmith. While she had no recollection of the ceremony, her mother was always anxious about the day her daughter would leave her house and make way to her husband’s.

When the day arrived and her Bhaunri’s husband’s family had come to take her, Bhaunri’s mother is quite explicit when she says that even if she may have taught her daughter to cook and clean, birth a calf, sing, dance and ply a hammer, she has also taught her to strike and escape like a nagin if need be. I find these words to be quite powerful. It not only demonstrates her pride and grit, but also displays her sheer love for her daughter, willing to take on society for her happiness and well-being. This very same characteristic is also displayed in Bhaunri, later in the story, where she not only makes a place for herself in her new surrounding, winning over the hearts of her family members and earning their respect, but taking a stand before her philandering husband.

The book on display at Mumbai’s Kitab Khana

Bhaunri met her husband only for the second time when she left for her in-laws’ house. Before that, she did not remember her marriage to Bheema, her husband. When they reach his place, she is brought to the rude realization that her husband is rude, gruff and terribly short-tempered – the way he orders his mother around and is more concerned about his dogs than his wife. But Bhaunri stands up to him also. If he called her “chhori”, she would remind him of her real name. The sexual tension between them is quite riveting, especially in the beginning when Bhaunri is made to sleep with her mother-in-law, and Bheema stays away most nights.

As time passes, Bhaunri becomes adept in taking care of the chores at home, and the absence of her father-in-law is conspicuous. She hears from others in the village of his wayward ways, his maniacal temper and his inability to get along with his own son, Bheema. There were many times when she tried to get her mother-in-law to see sense, to call out her husband on his actions, but to no avail. Coming from a home that was built by a marriage of equals, Bhaunri does not understand the relation between her in-laws, how the man held more sway over the woman. On the contrary, when Bhaunri speaks of her intense love for Bheema, of being able to walk barefoot in the desert only for him, his mother cautions her not to get too attached.

“It is better for the body to endure than for the heart to be snared. It only brings more suffering.”

Mai did not know love the way Bhaunri did, and even if she did once upon a time, it seems like it was short-lived. Her husband has been on more than one occasion inappropriate with his own daughter-in-law, has also got into stiff arguments with her. But he notices the fire and passion in Bhaunri, which is starkly missing in his own wife – a fact which he shares with her. This part of the book was heartbreaking. One cannot be compared to another. We’re individual beings, and Bheema’s father wished he had a wife like Bhaunri, often telling his son he doesn’t know what he’s losing when he goes on his nightly sojourns leaving Bhaunri behind, despondent.

When Bheema and Bhaunri get into a tiff, she doesn’t back down, even when she gets struck by him. She is relentless. She knows the love they have for each other is very strong, but she doesn’t falter when it comes to making her point. But this love for Bheema goes a step too far, when she takes fate into her own hands to make Bheema remain faithful to her. Her sense of love may not know any bounds, but it takes on a strange and obsessive temperament.

Even her father-in-law, in his own destructive nature, wrecked havoc on the one
he loved. The story delves into such toxic relationships, such fables of love fraught
with danger.

‘Can too much love be a dangerous thing?’

This book has been such a refreshing experience for me. Writer’s block feels like the worst thing ever. At the best of times the blank page is daunting, while at the worst, I just keep typing and deleting. But reader’s block can sometimes feel far worse – when one feels extremely disconnected from any and every book, unable to delve into the story and form a relation with the characters. But quite often there comes along a book that breaks this cycle. And Anukrti Upadhyay’s Bhaunri did just that for me. The writing, the narrative, the intriguing characters and the landscape, everything kept me hooked and riveted. I really enjoyed the book, especially the way the characters evolved, the way they were created as wholesome beings and not just two-dimensional cutouts. Each had their strengths and weaknesses.

The landscape felt like a character in itself, the tough terrain that is as hot during summer and as cold in winter. Nature can be treacherous here, especially when the swarm of locusts attacked the fields. The entire village joined forces to help each other during this time, trying to save the crop. 

The post is part of the Blogchatter Review Program.    

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​Dare Eat That – Challenge your palate

​​Those who know me know my crazy love for food. And Dare Eat That – A guide to bizarre foods from around the world by Divya Anand was just the book for me. For the better part of my life as a young adult, I have feasted on a lot of travel and food related shows, and this book brought the great Andrew Zimmern to mind. But I must say, I have never come across a book that dabbles in the unknown and deadly of the culinary world as well.  

​Divya Anand, who lives in Bengaluru with her husband Vivek, shares their passion for travel and everything gastronomic. Being the non-vegetarian in the duo, the book highlights Vivek’s tryst with food, his quest to sample as many species as he can. And he means serious business too. He has a chart made much like the ones we would study in school, the animal kingdom, broken down into vertebrates and invertebrates, mammals, molluscs, reptiles…the works.

​The book is divided into sections based on the many destinations the globe-trotting couple visited. And they have even devised their own chart to help rate elements such as taste and fear factor, while also mentioning the dish, species, price of the dish and where it can be purchased/ found. I think this was intuitive of them to share information in such a manner, because I am seriously considering taking this along with me should I ever be at any of the destinations they’ve mentioned. And I love how even though the book is essentially based on food, they include much about travel as well. After a while, it seems like a guide book in some aspects. They’ve shared experiences that do seem very interesting. Fancy a bit of squid fishing in Vietnam?

​I am part jealous and part impressed by Vivek. There were just so many things he has had that I have wanted to try myself. Spiders, ants, ant eggs, seahorse – the list goes on. I often wonder, when it comes down to actually trying them, will I be able to? Do I have the stomach for it?

​Among the things I cannot wait to try is the Chinese hot pot. Now I know this isn’t exactly bizarre but I grew up watching the divine Kylie Kwong who made hot pot on her show one day. The very idea to have a bowl of broth bubbling away at the table while you can pick and choose your vegetables, meats, sauces and cook them in the broth – marvelous! The experience must be quite something else. And these guys did it. What fun! However, I wonder why Vivek did not pick up any of the snake wines, bottles that have the whole snake infused in rice wine. I’ve always wanted to try some of that, and maybe get a bottle home. Although, I wonder if it would be allowed past the airport. Who knows?

​For some, the insects and grubs in Southeast Asia may seem run on the mill, but did you know one could get emu or rabbit, guinea fowl or even quail in Maharashtra? Or enjoy horse steak in Luxembourg? Or even a balut in Seattle’s Chinatown. For the uninitiated in the bizarre, a balut is a developing egg embryo that is boiled and eaten. Definitely not a pretty sight.  Oh, and imagine feasting on fugu or puffer fish, which is only prepared by certified chefs. That would definitely be quite a gamble with life.

​I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the first chapter was based in Seattle. I haven’t been to Seattle and don’t have any immediate plans as such, but a close friend K had visited and I couldn’t help but connect the dots. Divya talks about the famous Pike Place Market, a farmers’ market near the waterfront. It is not just a place to go shopping for some of the freshest produce in the area, but restaurants also serve up a variety of dishes, such as Piroshki (a Russian puff pastry). It is also home to the first Starbucks ever. A pilgrim spot for some I’m sure.

​Divya and Vivek have quite a unique tip when it comes to travelling to eat – ‘All good things are found in Chinatown’. Being a mini-China, they believe it is one place that never fails to surprise them and it is an easy way to sample authentic cuisines of China since they are yet to make their way to the country. 

​The book even features some pictures to help readers understand exactly what the couple seem to be talking about. I find this essential as everyone must know just how clean fish markets can be in some countries. The narrative is easy to read, not overly verbose, and there is a good mix between the travel and food elements. I did feel like I was an invisible observer travelling with them on their journey, as they kayak in Vietnam or walk around the beautiful temple complex of Angkor Wat.  

​However, when it comes to Vivek’s approach to covering as many species as he can in the animal kingdom, I both like and dislike it. I love it because Vivek comes across as a person who is very well read, who must have immersed himself in research and literature before eating something unknown in particular. Yes, he wants to cover as many species as he can, but he is smart about. Throughout the book even though he wanted to try paddy rats, and there were times when he was presented with the opportunity, he declined, because he wasn’t sure how it was sourced. But at times, his approach comes across as a bit clinical.

​Divya, who is a vegetarian, shares her insights on those lines. But since it has been written from her point of view, getting to know about Vivek’s side of the story in third person needs a bit getting used to. Now, I know while information may not been exaggerated or diluted in any way, I tend to seek his deliberations in the first person. It leaves me a bit wanting. But I got over this in time.

​All in all, this was quite a fun, relaxed read and a must for those with an adventurous palate. Fair warning, the book would probably not go down well with the squeamish and faint-of-heart. But, get out your comfort zones once in a while, try something remarkable, scary, or even downright hideous. If it’s tasty, that’s brilliant, and if it’s not, move on! It would still make for quite a compelling conversation starter.

​This post is part of the Blogchatter Book Review Program.  

Call Me By Your Name – A sensuous read

There are times when I want to travel to exotic lands, sup on different cuisines and waltz away my time lolling under the sun. And since I cannot live such a life in reality, I tend to reach out for a book. This time, it was a beautiful story set in Italy narrating the powerful love between a boy and a young man in a town referred to only as B in the novel, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman.

The story begins with seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman living with his family in sunny Italy, who enjoys his time listening to music, transcribing compositions by famous composers, spends time swimming, lounging under the shade of trees or wining and dining their relatives, friends and guests. Basically, a life of ease that had me wishing for the same. And enter Oliver, their guest for the summer.

The Perlmans invited Oliver, a professor who teaches in Columbia University, to their villa to keep up the tradition of helping young academics polish up their manuscripts before publication. In return, the guest helps Elio’s father with his correspondences, and in general, keep the conversations running in the household. And their discussions were so rich and unhurried, academic and acutely observant, which made me yearn for such an environment myself.

The book begins with Elio’s memories of Oliver, who conjures such a strong vision of the latter that it is impossible to not imagine him vividly enough. Of course, my imagination is a little biased in this regard since I had seen the movie last year. I did want to read the book first, but at the time I was in a double-decker Airbus hurtling over the Atlantic, and keeping my mind distracted and dreaming of sun-kissed Italy and orchards of peaches was my sole aim. So I can think of no one but the marvelous Armie Hammer in his “billowy blue shirt” winning over hearts with his self-confident and detached demeanour. Elio, portrayed by the ever wonderful Timothee Chalamet, is truly a powerhouse of talent, and in my head I could only think of the two of them as Elio and Oliver.

The book, and the movie, felt like a long summer vacation to me, with people just milling around, enjoying relaxing lunches and late breakfasts, cozy dinners with friends and making new acquaintances

In the story, Elio narrates how his interactions with Oliver left him unhinged, forced him to try and impress him and vie for his attention. But it wasn’t easy. Oliver made it difficult for one to gain his attention, to be held onto and rooted to one spot, and when moments with such a person seemed to be on the run. Such people are not easy to love. Elio was clearly not himself. He woke up in the morning wondering if he would bump into Oliver or be able to converse with him at breakfast, or sometimes he would come home for dinner sick with worry if Oliver hadn’t already had dinner with someone else. Elio had clearly lost himself in his desire for Oliver, for his skin, and lusted after every angle of his body. The early ‘brief’ interactions between the two, set Elio off into another zone, a zone most of us know all too well.

There is a point in the story when Oliver massages Elio’s shoulder, when the latter is taken by a surprise and his reflex is sudden and seemed harsh. Later, Elio explains it to the reader…

“It never occurred to me that what had totally panicked me when he touched me was exactly what startles virgins on being touched for the first time by the person they desire…”

Remember when we develop a really strong crush on someone, be it in college or at work, we constantly try to bump into them or get noticed (at least I did!), and every moment around them made us sick with anxiety. I would constantly think of as many possibilities possible, real and/ or imaginary, thought processes which would seem to wind their way towards each other before zipping in completely opposite directions. Such was Elio’s thinking, rampant with doubt, worry, passion and a desire to offer himself up to Oliver, body and soul.

“How is it that some people go through hell trying to get close to, while you haven’t the haziest notion and don’t even give them a thought when two weeks go by and you haven’t so much as exchanged a single word between you? Did he have any idea? Should I let him know?”

Elio had even set up a system to help gauge Oliver’s mood by connecting it with the colour of his swimming trunks. Quite a unique idea, but something all of us may have done at some time or the other – to find meaning even in the most absurd things. According to Elio, when Oliver wore red, he was bold, almost gruff and ill-tempered. When he was in yellow, he was sprightly and buoyant but could easily turn to red. But clearly Elio preferred him in green, acquiescent and eager to learn, eager to speak.

The book has a number of strong sexual scenes, and they can be quite a revelation. The part when on an impulse Elio wears Oliver’s bathing suit because he wanted to feel him on his skin, to take in his very scent, and then proceeds to lie naked within the sheets of Oliver’s bed, to leave his scent and yet feel every part of Oliver all around him…it brought forth a very strong imagery and no doubt, it left me stunned. Andre has such skill to weave words so beautifully, to lay bare the human soul and to put desire, shame, love, guilt and a multitude of emotions on display. Then pick at them, and tear them apart.

Oliver was the spark that set Elio alight. It was Oliver who helped Elio get to know more about himself, to understand his sexuality, to find himself at peace when entwined around another human being- man or woman, to go after the love he so desired and to be blessed to find someone to call him by his name.

The peach scene from the film is one of the most captivating ones

One of the most intense moments in the book is when Elio takes a peach, caresses it, feeling its smooth curves and bumps, and then ejaculates in it. While it does offer a release to the sexual tension building up inside him, it also becomes a symbol of intense love for him as Oliver, later, proceeds to ingest this very peach. Can there be anyone who wants to be part of someone so badly that they’re willing to consume them so intimately? Andre has written about love, sexuality, intimacy with such keen observations, it took me time to ponder over them to fully appreciate its brilliance. The way Andre has dissected their relationship, their almost-relationship and Elio’s constant fight with himself left me in a puddle of emotions. I identified with it so much.

I must confess I am partial to gay love, especially when narrated so beautifully. When I saw Armie Hammer onscreen, it reminded me of another character he had portrayed in the Hollywood film J. Edgar. Hammer, who plays Clyde Tolson, the then associate director of the FBI and protege and long time top deputy of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, had brilliantly brought to life love that was restrained yet simmering. I succumb to stories of unrequited love, and even though Tolson and Hoover (as per the movie) lived and worked together, they did not reveal themselves to the public.

I must thank my dear friend K, and his companion, for getting me a signed copy of this book. Andre was in India visiting the Jaipur literature festival. I was told there was a terrible rush during his sessions, and am extremely grateful to my friends who stood in line for almost an hour. I am grateful. Meanwhile, Andre is apparently working on a sequel to the book and I am not sure exactly what to expect from it, but I hope love like Elio’s and Oliver’s bloom brighter than the sun. Often sequels don’t go the way we imagine they would. Case in point, I haven’t been able to pick up The Mountain Shadow by Gregory Roberts yet. It’s been years since I bought it. But then again, there are sequels like those by George RR Martin that has us thirsting for more. Quite a gamble, this business.

As always, I shall leave you with my favourite quote in the book, which made me cry. It made me feel the way Elio felt, I could sense the tug in his heart, my throat choking up and I curled up and stared at the blank wall after finishing this book. It is beautiful, unlike any other story I have ever read. Till the sequel is published and we can either cry over lost opportunity or revel in the writer’s and the characters’ brilliance… ‘Later!’

“I’m like you,’ he said. ‘I remember everything.’

I stopped for a second. If you remember everything, I wanted to say, and if you are really like me, then before you leave tomorrow, or when you’re just ready to shut the door of the taxi and have already said goodbye to everyone else and there’s not a thing left to say in this life, then, just this once, turn to me, even in jest, or as an afterthought, which would have meant everything to me when we were together, and, as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.”

Kokni Canteen – An ultimate Goan experience

Goa is a raging tourist destination, with travellers landing up at its shores and transit centres throughout the year. The sticky humidity or bellowing rain clouds deter no one, and it certainly is one of the most sought after spots in the country.

However, I must confess, even after having visited the idyllic locale at least three times, never had I once heard of Kokni Canteen. And I wonder why. Everyone knows about the usual Britto’s at Baga beach or Souza Lobo in Calungate or even Antares (which caught fire earlier this year). But if you yearn for authentic Goan cuisine at a restaurant that offers a homely and warm ambience, Kokni Canteen is the place to be.

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The Tamarind – A cozy, intimate setting

Sometimes a destination can be so amazing that even a few hiccups in the trip can be easily overlooked. Sometimes a hotel experience can be absolutely brilliant, making a trip worthwhile, even if the destination did not live up to its expectations. But, if both destination and hotel stay knock your socks off, then it would make the trip the highlight of the year.

Such was my stay two years ago at The Tamarind Anjuna in north Goa, a wonderful boutique hotel just 2 km from Calungate. The property with its striking stone built façade and pops of white, plenty of verdure canopies and a sizeable swimming pool, had my heart the day I clapped my eyes on it. Located at the bend opposite St Michael’s Church, this is one hotel that will be difficult to miss. The 32-year-old property has certainly stood the test of time and doesn’t seem like its aged a bit.

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