Mar-Apr 2011: short story - Eating Dirt by anisha sridhar
Veena was six years old when she first became aware of her ‘otherness’ and it had nothing to do with the colour of her skin. The kids in her school came in all kinds of different colours, sizes and shapes but when they opened their lunchboxes, they were essentially the same. They ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or bite sized pizzas or macaroni and cheese lunches. What she got instead were round little idlis smothered in sugar and ghee or soft, brown dosas rolled up and stuffed with potatoes or spicy lemon rice. Her lunchbox always exploded with aroma as soon as she opened it.
It was Mark Irving who first noticed the smell. His nose twitched, his nostrils flared and he forgot, for the moment, that he'd been harassing Betsy to give up the last of her chicken nuggets.
“What's that smell?” he said, a little too loudly and it hadn't taken the kids too long to figure out the source. They crowded around Veena peering into her lunchbox.
“Ewww, what is it?” Jenny asked as she caught a glimpse of the brown upama with peas and carrots.
“It looks like dirt,” Mark said, again too loudly, prompting the chant that would haunt Veena's first year at school:
“Veena eats dirt! Veena eats dirt!”
Because the smell was unfamiliar to the children, they reacted in the only way they knew: with derision. At six, the children were no longer non-judgementally curious. They were beginning to form cliques and opinions. They had figured out that what they did not know could hurt them, like strangers with candy and invisible bugs. Veena ran from them, holding her lunchbox close to her chest and spent the rest of the day hiding her face in her arms. Miss Gracie, the first grade teacher, was so concerned that she called the school nurse and Veena was whisked away to the infirmary bed with a lump in her throat.
“Did someone hurt you, honey?” the Nurse asked.
Her voice was whisper-soft, inviting secrets, but Veena simply shook her head and said, “There's a monster in my throat and he won't let me speak.”
When she brought her uneaten lunch home, her mother was exasperated.
“So what if they call it dirt? Does that make it dirt?” she asked and when her mother took that tone Veena knew better than to argue.
“You go to school to study, not to fight with others,” her mother had added and then emptied the contents of the lunchbox onto a plate for Veena to eat as her evening snack.
When her father came home and heard about Veena’s bad day, he simply clicked his tongue and patted her head before launching into a diatribe about the effects of bringing up his daughter in what he still considered a racially divided country. According to Samarth Vishwanathan, colour politics had not actually been transcended by the civil rights movement; the prejudice had simply shifted from black to brown people.
“Brown is the new black,” he said to his wife, Kaveri. It was a phrase he had borrowed from a fashion show that he’d stumbled upon while searching for the BBC news channel. To illustrate his point he spoke, with bitterness, about the fact that he’d been passed over for a promotion twice in favour of black men and in the ensuing tirade Veena’s little lunch problem was forgotten.
In the days that followed, Veena tried to put her mother’s advice to action. She tried to ignore the taunting voices and eat her lunch alone but with each day it seemed as if the offending group grew bigger and bigger. Although Mark was still at its helm, the faces behind him grew more and more unfamiliar. In class, the children giggled as soon as Veena entered. They threw spit balls at her and whispered amongst themselves and all the while Veena repeated her mother’s words to herself, “I’m here to study, not to fight. I’m here to study, not to fight.”
And so she never fought, not even when Miss Gracie took her aside and said,
“Veena, if you don’t stand up for yourself, the bullies will continue to bully you.”
Veena looked into the blond Miss Gracie’s blue eyes and felt the tears choking her throat.
That same day someone put a fistful of sand in Veena’s desk. The sand got into her books leaving grainy imprints on the pages that reminded her of her dirt eating ways even when she was safely ensconced in the privacy of her own home. To Veena it felt like the dirt had followed her home and she cried herself to sleep that night thinking about the conflicting advice she’d received from Miss Gracie and her mother.
The next morning, Veena began a fast. She refused to eat her breakfast despite her mother's pleas, bribes and threats. She pursed her lips together determined to win the first battle.
At school, she spent the lunch hour on the swings acutely aware of her rumbling belly but no one had called her dirt eater and that, she thought, was her second victory of the day. As she soared up towards the clear blue sky, she ignored the little spots of light that played in front of her eyes and that odd feeling of weightlessness that made her feel as if she was actually flying; as a result, she was completely unprepared for Mark when he walked up to her and said, “Hey dirt-eater, get off my swing.”
The words crashed into Veena’s hollow body and her grip on the swing's chain links weakened so that when Mark caught the chains to stop her she sailed through the air like a falling leaf and landed face down in the sand. The sand got into her hair and into her mouth giving new credence to her alleged culinary habits. Once again, Veena went to the infirmary where the Nurse washed her face and checked her body for any bruises or wounds.
“How do you feel, honey?” the Nurse asked.
“I feel funny,” Veena said. “Like a cloud.”
The Nurse tried to get Veena to explain what she meant but she closed her eyes and spent the afternoon with a lump in her throat. Miss Gracie came to see her with the school counsellor, Mr Steven Diaz, a tall man with toasty brown skin just like Veena’s.
“Steve’s here to help you, Veena,” Miss Gracie said, “Can you tell us what happened?”
“Did someone push you?” Steve asked but Veena only said, “There’s a monster in my throat and he won’t let me speak.”
When her mother came to pick Veena up, she was hysterical. She smothered Veena’s face with kisses and crushed her in an embrace.
“Are you okay, Veenu? Did you get hurt? Let me see,” Kaveri said and she spun Veena around in the infirmary looking for bruises even though the Nurse assured her that Veena was fine.
“I’m okay, ma,” Veena mumbled and followed her mother out of the school and into a waiting taxi.
At home her mother said nothing about the uneaten lunch. She didn't force Veena to eat either but instead made her a tall glass of frosted chocolate milk which she let Veena drink in front of the television. The chocolate milk revived Veena but the monster in her throat stayed. She fell asleep on the couch and dreamt that an army of sand particles were marching into her mouth. Somewhere above her Mark and Jenny and Betsy were chanting “Veena eats dirt!” and soon her belly was full of sand. Veena woke up from her nightmare screaming and crying. She had kicked the glass of half drunk chocolate milk off the table and a long, brown stain sank into the carpet.
Kaveri came running into the room and wrapped Veena up in her arms.
“Aiyyo, kadavale! What’s happening to you?” Kaveri said, terrified suddenly of old world ghosts or curses and mentally chastising herself for not putting the dhristi mark on her six year old child.
Despite the monster in her throat, Veena cried out, “I don’t want to eat dirt, ma. I don’t want to eat dirt anymore. I hate it. I hate it. I want sandwiches like all the other kids. Please, ma. Please. Just make me sandwiches like all the other kids.”
Kaveri sank back into the couch still holding her sobbing child and said, “Okay, Veenu. Don’t cry. Okay. I’ll make you a sandwich tomorrow, okay?”
Kaveri had grown up in rural Tamil Nadu and had attended a convent school where she learned to speak the Queen’s English with a Tamil accent. She only knew of sandwiches from Enid Blyton books and spelling tests where the majority of the class spelled it as ‘sandwitch’.
Not having ever made or eaten one, she called her friend Priya who lived in Texas and asked her, “How do I make this sandwich?” whereupon Priya gave her the recipe to make a simple pudina sandwich.
When Veena opened her lunch box at school the next day, she was relieved to see the white square of sandwich bread sitting inside. She touched the top of the sandwich with her finger and felt, with delight, the way it sank softly like a pillow under her touch.
“Ewww. What’s that smell?” Mark Irving said and the routine began again. At first Veena was confused but when she brought the sandwich closer to her mouth, she detected the sharp, minty aroma. Once again mortified and angry she threw the sandwich into the box. A crowd gathered around Veena.
“What is it?” Jenny asked, repeating the lines from their daily play with glee bubbling over in her voice. But instead of ‘dirt’ someone said, “It’s a sandwich,” and the whole play seemed to go awry.
“Well, what kinda sandwich?” Mark Irving said trying to rally the crowd.
“It’s a special sandwich that’ll make me stronger than all of you,” Veena blurted out and for the first time the crowd appeared vulnerable.
“That’s not true. What’s in the sandwich?” Mark Irving said.
“It’s a secret and I’ll never tell you but I’m gonna be smarter and stronger than all of you,” Veena said opening her lunch box once again.
She took a bite of the sandwich and as the flavour of pudina filled her mouth she almost believed her own story.
Postscript - As soon as she regained control over her lunch box, Veena’s parents announced that they were moving back to Madras where they would tell friends for the first few years that, “Veena was not doing well in that place. There’s no culture there. Everything is fast food and disco dance.”