knock down the house

There’s a moment in Knock Down The House when pre- fame Alexandria Ocasio Cortez plunges her gloved arms into an ice bin, upends an avalanche of ice into a bucket, and pushes it across the floor into a waiting service elevator. You can be sure that the scraping, the jarring loudness of it, is a total contrast to the hushed, hallowed workplace of her opponent. ‘I’m used to being on my feet 18 hours a day’, she says later, explaining why this makes her uniquely suited to politics. ‘I’m used to receiving a lot of heat. I’m used to people trying to make me feel bad. They call it ‘working class’ for a reason, because you are working non-stop.’ That sense of realism and optimism, cheek- by- jowl,  is what defines the AOC brand today. 

So how does a 28 year old bartender- waitress whose mother cleaned homes become such a force of nature? How does she convince a roomful of people to look past her youth and her class disadvantages, and several bigger roomfuls later, make political history?

Netflix’s Knock Down The House, which began as a Kickstarter project for directors Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick could well be Hollywood fiction about the audacity of the upstart- a popular theme- except it isn’t. The documentary profiles four women who hope to effect a major upset in the Democratic primaries of 2018, notwithstanding the inconvenient facts of their debut candidatures, relative/ perceived inexperience and entrenched competition. It is the anatomy of three dashed hopes and one landslide victory connected by themes of community, personal hardship and hopes for shaking the complacent establishment out of their stupor. The organizers and strategists backing these new hopefuls are two grassroots outfits called Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, working to introduce a radically principled, urgency- driven, more responsive brand of liberal politics to a complacent and lacklustre Democratic party. For instance, AOC, who was nominated by her brother to join a pool of several thousand names vetted for moral clarity and ability to lead and inspire and organize, rejected corporate donations entirely for her campaign. Nearly 70% of her campaign funds came from individual contributions under 200 USD. Thus, the working class background of the candidates is both essential qualifier and badge of pride. 

What is common to all these women is their belief that the personal and the political are one and the same. ‘Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid?’, says writer Margaret Atwood in an interview with The Paris Review. ‘It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.’ It is easy to dismiss these womens’ emotional pitches as hysteria, but what they really are is a heightened awareness of their place in society, and a truthful telling of society’s failure to acknowledge their struggles. Personal grief becomes battle cry, family and community rallying points. So there’s Laura Jean Swearengin of Virginia, grimly determined to expose the powerful mining lobby for their role in the deaths and sicknesses of her people- including her father. There’s disillusioned nurse and mother Cori Bush, a black woman running from Missouri, clearly still reeling from the Ferguson riots. There’s gritty, grieving Amy Vilela of Nevada who lost her teenage daughter to a no-insurance clause that denied her emergency medical treatment, advocating for insurance for all. And there’s AOC, struggling to make ends meet in a tough economy. It’s proof that unlike men, women don’t and shouldn’t hesitate to use their hurt to legitimize their ambition. That feelings- stormy, frightened, frustrated, angry, sorrowful- can empower instead of weakening or discrediting- and also challenge the notion that even when power expresses as fist- pumping wood- slamming rhetoric, it is essentially stoic and coolly distant. That powerful white male politicians with their regulation khakis and rolled up white sleeves and their casual cheery entitlement perpetuate the political equivalent of manspreading- taking up too much space to the point of cultural inevitability, to the point that questioning it seems like asking for too much, to the point of it boomeranging doubt and apprehension on the asker. Individually and as a group, these women reframe power as collaborative, feelings as valid reasons to run. ‘For one of us to make it through, 100 of us have to try.’ says AOC. Since her win, she’s been widely praised for constantly highlighting the achievements of her fellow- Congress debutantes, forcing the spotlight on female leadership and showing us how fundamentally different it is from its male version.


On the show or off it, AOC inspires. She’s courteously assertive, a tough rope to walk especially when being baited or slammed, which she often is. She’s never patronizing, never rudely dismissive or combative. A cautiously thrilled American media has called her ‘earnestly nerdy’ and praised her refreshing candour and her refusal to allow cynicism or jadedness to take over. 

Today she’s championing an improbable- sounding legislation that aims at a full transition to renewable energy countrywide by 2030 plus an immediate moratorium on the mining of and investment in fossil fuel. Her insistence on seeing the Green New Deal fructify has earned her eye rolls from the old guard, who are appalled at her apparent naïveté. But people have been hauled over the coals for far less. This disdain for ‘lack of experience’ is exactly what the documentary explores. What does the ‘experience’ in the phrase ‘lack of experience’ entail? Who decides whose experience matters? Is one kind of experience inferior or less valuable than another? Is the predominantly white male notion of experience- usually bookended by an expensive Ivy League graduation/ celebratory donation the only kind of experience that counts? Is the premature experience of adversity, of daily working class grind, of lived financial deprivation and near-homelessness and sicknesses left untreated because there’s no insurance, of being denied opportunity and agency because of class or ethnicity not enough to qualify an educated, well- intentioned candidate who wants to make a difference? In a bizarre plot twist, AOC slams the incumbent, who’s been unchallenged 14 years as representative for the New York burroughs of the Queens and the Bronx. He doesn’t live here, she says. He lives in Virginia. ‘If we elect working people, working people can have representation in Congress.’ she reasons later in the show.

For me this was a fantasy- watch. The Indian political scenario is not very different; we have a consolidation of power by an elite determined to exclude and suppress fresh talent. Caste and class privileges are directly proportional to wealth, and wealth joined with muscle dictates political outcomes. The Arvind Kejriwal- led Aam Aadmi Party movement, premised on the right of every ordinary citizen to influence said outcomes has played out to mixed results. In an attempt to change the language of power, governance and political discourse, the leaders of the party adopted unconventional methods. Theatrical displays of resistance, protest- based negotiation and threats to unveil a paper trail of systemic corruption pitted them against the old ways. Their electoral success was stymied by infighting, poorly set priorities and expected backlash from establishment politicians. Still, they made their point; ordinary working class citizens, when empowered, can and do accomplish the one good thing no one can deny- representation. What then will it take to have our own KDTH moment? 

Against the disapproving murmurs growing only louder by the day, it’s easy to forget that AOC and her kind don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be. ‘He leaned down next to me, and he pointed at the Washington Monument, and he pointed at the reflecting pool, and he pointed at everything,’ says an emotional post- win AOC of her dead father, crying for a memory from when she was five. ‘…And he said, ’You know, this all belongs to us.’ He said, ‘This is our government. It belongs to us. So all of this stuff is yours.’

It’s easy to be a critic, far more difficult to allow ourselves to be seduced by hope. KDTH quietly, unobtrusively asks that you suspend your scepticism and allow this moment its rightful, shining place in history.  

mere paas ma hai

I love silver jewellery and Quirksmith’s simple, impactful pieces are an old favourite. This Mothers’ Day I’m honouring my Amma by wearing their Mere Paas Ma Hai earcuff.

In India, silver’s first serious associations with lifestyle were embodied in predictable signposts of royal debauchery- objects like the ittardaan (perfume holder), the paandaan (betel nut box), the gulaabpaash (rose water sprinkler) and ornate silver jewellery, all of which survive to this day. States that lay in the crosscurrents of the old maritime trade still retain European, Persian and Chinese influences in their designs. Then there is our consumption of varq, the micrometre-thin beaten silver foil that tops our mithaais. By one estimate, India converts over 10 tonnes of silver into varq every year. With zari, a conveniently bendy hair-thin wire looped and twisted into pretty embellishments on the hems of skirts and saris, we even found a way to incorporate silver in our textiles. My mother- in- law’s mother, who arrived in India from Sargodha after the Partition and lived and worked in a refugee camp, cut and sold the zari from her best saris for money. Silver may lack the sex appeal of gold, but it remains strongly evocative of sepia- tinted gentility and nostalgia, reminding us of a simpler, sweeter, quieter time.

Today, most silver jewellery in India still draws heavily from and perpetuates a staunchly traditional region- specific aesthetic. On the outskirts of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, the ‘silver city’ of Hupari specialises in paayals, ornate anklets that clink and jangle pleasingly and are roaringly popular across the country. Their motifs of choice speak to their inspirations- the koyna (mango), the pankh (bird’s wing), shankh (conch) and pari (a triangular shape reminiscent of marine corals). Odisha boasts an ancient filigree tradition called tarakasi, so prettily delicate as to be impossible. Jewellery from the erstwhile Rajput kingdoms in Rajasthan, UP, Punjab and Himachal is distinctly different and is influenced, to varying degrees, by the art forms nurtured in Mughal courts. Gaddi jewellery from Himachal- bright blonde silver mixed with blue, red and green enamelwork- all of it incredibly light and easy to wear- is a personal favorite. The pride of my wedding trousseau is a pair of silver kaleerey, commissioned by my grandmother Sushila and crafted to perfection by the talented women in her niece’s village.

Extravagantly shot period films have revived interest in pieces like the chandbaali, the jhumka and the karnphool (for the ears) the borla, the maangtikka and the maathapatti (for the forehead), the sarpech, the passa, the jadanagam and the nizam choti (for the hair), the rani haar, the patta haar, the jadavi lacchha, the guttapusal, the kanti, the kantha-tudar, the navratna, the attigai, the kasu malai, the manga malai, the linga padakka muthu malai, the pathakala haaram, the naulakha and the satlada (for the neck and the torso), the kamarbandh and the chandrahaar (for the waist and the hips), the paizeb and the bichuey (for the feet), the haathphool (for the fingers) and the nath (for the nose). Happily, cheaper silver versions of these abound.

Still, I’ve always missed a simpler, more modern silver ornament, as far removed from the maximalist ethos of its predecessors as the royals were from the grim realities of ordinary people.

Quirksmith’s handcrafted pieces are exactly that- sleek, contemporary, quietly cheeky. They are also excellent conversation starters. I love that.

You can place an order at their website, find this particular ear cuff here, and other cuffs here. They accept payments online and also offer cash-on-delivery service. They are also unfailingly courteous in conversation and handle transactions efficiently and professionally.

Do your bit to support small local businesses by considering small shops like Quirksmith for your jewellery needs.

And now, my generic, mandatory PSA: when dealing with a small business, be mindful of their logistical constraints. Communicate with clarity and politeness. Before you shoot off a rude email or unflattering review, make sure you’ve had a proper conversation- via text or on the phone. If you’re happy with the product, send in a few sincere words of thanks and appreciation. They go a long way in boosting morale.

weekly earworm- mantoyiat

With Gully Boy foregrounding protest rap as a form of political expression, rap is finally mainstream. The only rap we’ve known before is the sex-and-booze themed hooks in popular club hits. In this resurgence of rap as respectable, let’s not forget that as an art form, rap actively pans respectability politics. This is why listening to Mantoiyat from the film Manto is important.

desi tarbooz & feta salad

Is it even summer if you haven’t had tarbooz run stickily down your chin? It’s the fruit I think of when I read Nayyirah Waheed’s words:

The grownup way to do tarbooz is to build a salad with it, a salad with plenty of salt and umami to balance the sweetness. My desi twist on this summer classic goes a step further- it has sour and spicy flavors and packs some heat. It’s the complete package, and it’s delicious. I have it every other afternoon when everything’s still and drowsy from the loo, and the sun baked walls of our home smell like rained- on earth from the mist of the desert cooler.

You need-

1/2 a small watermelon, or 1/4ths of a big one. Choosing a good melon at the mandi is an art and a science. The right one should feel dense and heavy for its size and have a spreading butter-yellow splotch on its belly indicating ripeness. Rapping on it with your knuckles should yield a ringing thud, not a dull one. A dull sound may indicate that it is spoiling fast. Bark-like spotty brown areas that feel rough to the touch indicate that the sugar’s seeped from its interior, which means the fruit is likelier to be sweet.

1 medium- sized onion. The flatter, the sweeter.

1 katori/ small bowl/ 6 tbsp hari chutney. This forest green dhania-pudina chutney is a staple in every Indian household. I make mine with dhania (coriander leaves), mint (pudina leaves), pyaaz (onion), adrak shavings (ginger), lahssun (garlic), hari mirch (green chillies) and if it’s available, a bite- sized chunk or two of a firm sour mango. Not kairi/ accha aam; that’s the stuff that goes into pickles. I use any unsweet mango I’ve hauled in from my weekly visit to the sabzivala . I use my gut with portions, so I’m not recommending any. Recipes for hari chutney abound online. They’re all equally good; you can choose the one you like the sound of.

store-bought feta. It spoils if it stays too long in the fridge, so buy a size you’re sure to consume within a week of purchase. My preferred brand is Mooz, a Faridabad (Haryana) based dairy products company. Purists will scoff at their feta (it’s like biting into a really salty barfi) but I’m okay with it. Delaktis is another good one; it’s softer and creamier.

a fistful of shelled walnuts

black peppercorns in a mill


Slice the onions into thin wispy rings. Separate the rings.

Put the chutney in a bowl, and throw the onions in for a good rub. Get in there with your hands to make sure the chutney coats every ring. Stow it away in the fridge for 30 minutes; let the onion really soak in the juices.

Cut the watermelon into long, thin, broad slivers. Remove the seeds. Arrange these on a platter in a checkerboard pattern, so the empty spaces in between can hold all the good stuff, acting as pockets of flavour.

Once the onions are done, use them to top the watermelon.

Use a small paring knife to shave a lot of feta on top. You can also crumble it with your fingers, but I prefer the flakes- they melt in your mouth and leave a delicious briny aftertaste.

Crumble the walnuts and sprinkle them everywhere.

Finally, 2-3 twists of your pepper mill over everything, and you’re done.

Serve as an accompaniment to lunch, or with bagfuls more feta, as lunch itself. I can have this every single day. I promise that so can you.