Column | When spicy potatoes ‘trumped’ Trump

The connection between an uninvited television set, a loud politician, and a humble side dish

Published - July 28, 2023 01:31 pm IST

Sometimes in life, you witness events that you are not physically a part of, but they change you in ways that you are no longer who you were before

Sometimes in life, you witness events that you are not physically a part of, but they change you in ways that you are no longer who you were before | Photo Credit: Illustration: Zainab Tambawalla

In a conflict torn place called Kashmir, a village rests quietly amidst the mountains, the dense forests and the abundant fruit orchards. The village is of no consequence to anyone except those who reside in it. The inhabitants have led simple lives and most have very successfully tried to ignore the world at large, but nothing lasts forever, especially peace.

One of the inhabitants of this idyllic village is Tahira, my Phuphee, a woman now entering her 70s. When the rest of the world around her moved to new rhythms set by modern technology, TikTok and Instagram, she continued to follow the rhythms her ancestors had followed — and allowed her life to be dictated by the changing of the seasons, the phases of the moon, and the migratory patterns of the birds. Even today, she can predict the coming weather exactly like her forefathers did, simply by looking up at the sky.

Her life had remained largely untouched until the arrival of a television set in their home almost a decade ago, brought by her husband, my uncle. As soon as it was installed, the quiet stillness that had existed in Phuphee’s house vanished. In the mornings when he would watch the news, it would sound like the birds outside were being physically strangled by the news readers who would shout at the top of their voice as if the news they were delivering would somehow become less important if they chose to speak it rather than shout it.

For the longest time Phuphee tolerated it and said nothing. She had this belief that when people do stupid things you should give them ample opportunity to figure it out for themselves, but she would always add ‘except for when it is a man doing something stupid, then you had better prepare yourself’. So, like the patient woman that she was, she waited for my uncle to realise that the television set was a mistake and he being a man, realisations were clearly not important.

I sincerely believe that Phuphee would have put up with the television set a little longer had it not been for the arrival of a very loud mouthed American called Donald Trump who found his way into the quiet space of her home so that along with the rest of the world, she too lost her peace of mind. This happened, of course, around the time of the tumultuous American elections. Now, Phuphee was a woman with a strong constitution, some would say stronger than America’s and she had had her share of men shouting at her, but that particular week had been very difficult for her and her patience and nerves had both been sorely tested.

She had to cast out a very stubborn jinn (spirit) from an elderly lady in a neighbouring village, bless a kitchen garden in her own village, and counsel a stubborn cow into giving milk again. It was at the end of this difficult week that Phuphee was first introduced to Trump, or at least to him shouting something very loudly into a number of microphones. She was sitting in her kitchen peeling potatoes to make gande ti aalve (onions with potatoes). She often made this when she had had a difficult time at work and her capacity to decide what to feed her family for dinner had been compromised by decision fatigue.

When she first heard Trump screaming, she asked my uncle why this man had to shout despite the obvious presence of microphones. Does he think everyone is deaf? My uncle mumbled something which too was drowned by the shouts of Trump.

Phuphee went back to her cooking. That evening everyone noticed that something was off with the food. You couldn’t really point to a single thing, but nobody could bring themselves to eat it. The gande ti aalve was thrown out and everyone survived on milk and athe tchot (roti) that night.

Early next morning when I walked into the kitchen, I noticed the television set had disappeared. My uncle walked in behind me and, upon noticing the absence of the device, started shouting. Phuphee explained to him calmly that under no circumstances would that thing return to the house, especially not her kitchen. Uncle seethed, he raged, he huffed and puffed, he threatened but she would not budge. She held her ground. Poor uncle left for work without breakfast.

‘Don’t you think you are being a little extreme?’ I asked Phuphee.

She was sitting at the daan (mud stove) with the morning nun chai (salt tea) bubbling away in the copper pot, smoking her two cigarettes. She looked at me for a good few seconds before saying, ‘I can cook on this fire but this same fire can also burn my house down if I place it in the wrong part of the house. There is wisdom in knowing that and acting accordingly.’

‘Are you saying the American is trying to burn your house down?’ I asked, sarcastically.

‘When a man who doesn’t have to raise his voice to be heard, raises his voice, remember he isn’t worried if you can understand his words, he is trying to make sure that you remember that he can raise his voice,’ she said.

A part of me felt she was being over dramatic, but I didn’t say anything. Time, it turns out is an unforgiving teacher.

Phuphee never made gande ti aalve again. I wanted to ask her why but I already knew the answer. Sometimes in life, you witness events that you are not physically a part of, but they change you in ways that you are no longer who you were before.

Saba Mahjoor, a Kashmiri living in England, spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.

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