"The rasam Brahmins make is different; it becomes part of their house odour. It is a smell that is imprinted in my brain. In the quarters, during Krishna Jayanthi, my borderline obese toddler brother was dipped in rice-flour paste, to recreate Krishna's footsteps. My mother was more than happy to lend him for the festival."
This is an excerpt from House of Powders, a chapter by Sanobar Sultana, from Madras on My Mind, the cocky, irreverent anthology on the city many of us grew up in. Sanobar, as you can see, is a Muslim, a young lady known to thousands as a radio jockey and TV personality. At one point she says, "The six years that I spent as an RJ, I received enormous support from the Brahmin community. How they loved me!"
She dedicates her article to her "mentor Bala Kailasam."
"Radio was fun but I wanted to try television,too," says Sarobar. "I had written to Bala Kailasam (BK) who was with Pudiya Thalaimurai. He... wanted me to host an all-women's programme on a new channel that they intended to launch. The programming team was baffled. "A woman in a burqa?' they asked him. 'She would be sending the wrong message.' He argued with them, saying that they could not force someone to give up her identity."
Sarobar says she cried when she heard this.
Things change. Sanobar is not so welcome at a Brahmin friend Sangeetha's wedding, though the bride herself is fiercely loyal to her old friend. She hugs her when her mother is not looking, and her aunts run up to her and ask her why she doesn't visit them any more. "My heart danced like a swan with those words, with Carnatic music playing in the background. I pirouetted in happiness when I saw the cook from Gnanambika Mess carry in a bucket of rasam."
Sanobar ends her story on a happy note, not untouched by poignant recall of happier times. "Every time I hear Subramaniam Swamy's rants against Muslims, I remember BK Sir, Sangeet's aunts, Saundarya Rajesh (who prompted her everywhere impressed by her TV work), Sriram who paid my term fees once, and my childhood memories. Everything is okay with the world. Attars and powders both make the world beautiful."
In a world rapidly dismantling the trust and mutual respect of old friendships, Sultana's voice comes as a breath of fresh air.