There is something about ‘body horror’ – the genre that take simple, basic biological processes to the extreme. Perhaps, they remind us of our body’s fragility, limitations and ultimately, mortality. In Rahul Jain’s ‘What Can you Eat Smriti’, the story responds to its title with a resounding ‘everything’! As a Jain woman, the protagonist’s relationship with food is already complicated and add to that the ability to to eat anything, and the desire to see how far one can go. It reminded me of ‘Head’, the first story in South Korean writer Bora Chung’s ‘Cursed Bunny’. Both stories deal with the idea of shame and how hiding the undesirable part of oneself from others has a way of coming back. Oh Freud, you and your Return of the Repressed.
— Amulya B
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Smriti thinks she was 7 years old when she discovered she could eat a lot of things. She realised that she could eat paper —and not just like how most people can eat paper out of curiosity, emergency or accident—but she could really, really eat paper. What’s more, she discovered she could eat rubbers, leather, wood, and more. Whatever was inside her stationary box, she could eat it—especially if Mother didn’t send a tiffin. Her mouth would never bleed, nor would she ever vomit anything out.
She tried to show it to the chubby boy who sat beside her at school. He was amused to see her ridiculously strong teeth chew up his 2B pencil. Soon, classmates gathered around her in the playground during recess. They asked her to try out different stuff from their pockets—handkerchiefs, tissues, rubber bands, and more. She ate them all. Bite by bite.
But the kids didn’t stop. They kept offering new materials— mud, pebbles, goobers, and more. They cheered in a way that didn’t feel cheerful anymore. Smriti ran away from the playground.
And 2nd-grade kids, like 2nd-grade kids do, soon forgot about her odd superpowers. Smriti gradually learned to hide this little ability of hers properly. This didn’t stop her from experimenting with her mouth, though.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like her mother’s cooking.
Sure, her Poha was quite dry. Sure, Mother often just packed biscuits, bread, or ₹5 snacks as tiffin, while others bought at least two dishes wrapped in foil. But mother’s cooking, whenever she managed to make something close to a meal, was still edible, and easy to swallow—it was still made of average organic compounds.
It wasn’t that she really loved shredding pencil boxes with her teeth, either.
Sure, tasting a new colour had a certain appeal.
Sure, chewing wet cardboard had a certain mouthfeel. But it was often a game driven by curiosity. The texture of that odd thing lying on the road! The odd sourness of yellow, ochre & orange wax crayons.
She did think of telling her mother about it once. But Smriti wasn’t sure who else she might end up telling about it, and mother had become the kind of mother that if Smriti’s almirah was untidy, tiffin unclean, or cursive characters improperly joined, Smriti was going to have her knuckles slapped red. So she refrained.
On her second day in 5th grade, Smriti remembers, the entire class watched her as she chewed up most of her ball pens accidentally. She sucked up entire refills. Her face was dripping with slimy, dark blue ink. And so was the white school dress!
Smriti imagines her father buying the school dress the previous week, along with her fancy school kit. He also bought her a pink sequin stud dress, akin to one of her dolls. Actually, he had this habit of buying her pretty dresses on the 30th of every month on his own. They couldn’t have been cheap though, now that she thinks about it.
Father would also secretly get her exotic candies from different countries, different flavours & kinds. Every month, there was something new to chew, new wrappers to lick, and new colours to smell.
After all, little Smriti was the queen of the little kingdom, as Father insisted. This was just another one of their little secrets, Father also insisted. Mommy doesn’t need to know about the dresses, Father insisted. Or the candies. And Mommy’s a bit too strict, Father insisted. And Father is her only true friend out there, Father insisted.
Smriti now thinks that Father knew about her little superpower as well, but it seems he never told anyone about it. However, she isn’t sure how much of any memory in her head is an actual memory or a later fabrication.
Mother didn’t remember about it either—neither her eating habits, candies or dresses, nor the ink-blue school dress. But truth be told, Mother wasn’t sharp with memories either.
The dresses father bought disappeared fairly soon. And Mommy became the kind of mother who locked away the nicer toys inside glass shelves, alongside the family photographs and fine china. Always to be looked on, but never to be played with. Mommy’s lehengas, sarees, and suits were packed inside zipped bags with the glitter intact, devoid of creases. The bags were stacked inside the diwan alongside her old books, dowry crockery & rajaais—to be taken out only to clean, from Diwali to Diwali. No wonder Mommy would have hidden those dresses somewhere Smriti couldn’t find, couldn’t spoil, and had probably forgotten about them.
Mommy was indeed a little jealous of the little queen.
This time, though, the leaking pen thing happened in school, in public. There was nowhere to hide. The ink didn’t taste nice either; it tasted like metal and salt.
Smriti’s teacher rushed her to the bathroom. She tried to ask how Smriti ended up stuffing ink in her mouth. Smriti didn’t generally like the taste of speaking. She started crying silently, without tears—in short bursts and hiccups.
Her eating superpower aside, Smriti didn’t know how to cry properly. Unlike other kids who could release waterfalls from their eyes and noses, Smriti could never shed tears.
While she hiccuped, the teacher tried to calm her down. She told her that ink stains remain for weeks, but it’s not a big deal otherwise. Mommy could make it a big deal, though.
Father came to pick her up from school that day. Smriti, still hiccuping, tugged at the teacher’s hand. She didn’t want to go home, but her teacher insisted—there was nothing to worry about
The next day, when Smriti returned, her face and dress were spotless, and, to everyone’s surprise, even her teeth were as shiny as ever. The teacher tried to ask how, but nothing came out of Smriti’s mouth. She’s probably forgotten, much like a 5th grader; like how 5th graders forget their algebra. Nothing to worry about, as the teacher had insisted.
Smriti stopped swallowing shady stuff by the end of 5th grade, according to her memory. Mother and Father officially split. Maybe she lost her taste buds. She did have the urges sometimes—wishing for a mouthfeel of stale blood, fallen hair and more. Urges to chew her old notebooks and drawings— but now she knew better than to be driven by the tongue.
It wasn’t till the 2nd year of college, after moving out of home and getting a room of her own, that she let her tongue decide things occasionally. Scissors, rusted blades, or broken window panes. It wasn’t a case of renewed appetite, but a way to remind herself that she still had the ability.
She experimented with the chemicals in her chemistry lab, visiting it at odd hours at night for an entire semester. But she grew out of it fairly soon. Neither aqua regia nor copper sulphate felt inviting enough for a second helping.
In her 3rd year, she had her first sip of alcohol. Smriti remembers she despised the first few sips of the Old Monk her senior had asked her to gulp. But she was determined to explore it properly, considering how often her friends, roommates and seniors expressed their admiration for alcohol. Yet, every time anyone lifted a glass, they behaved as if it burned their throats and tongues a little.
The one thing Smriti had observed in life till then was this: people don’t like to challenge their tongue— you can’t wilfully make people taste what they don’t like.
Yet, it seemed most people liked returning to their drink. They seemed to develop a taste for alcohol despite not liking its taste. Did this feeling change with time? Did it change with the amount?
‘It’s an acquired taste,’ her senior insisted. Smriti liked hanging out with seniors, so she had no intention to resist anyway.
‘It will soon feel natural,’ the senior said. ’Not just natural, great.’
Smriti had a few more sips of Old Monk, but there wasn’t anything new there. It was still despicable. ‘Maybe it would taste better with a little chicken,’ her senior insisted.
The thing with chicken was that little Smriti Jain, at least in the public sphere, had become extremely strict about her eating habits. Mother had been adopting an increasingly stricter Jain diet. After the divorce, Mother returned to Naani’s house, and they gradually started renouncing a lot of food items. Within a year, they were no longer eating ladyfingers, brinjals and the kind—the logic, they insisted, was that you can’t have vegetables that have more than one seed. ‘Do nothing that can destroy even a potential life.’
So for years, all Smriti had, amongst a handful of things, were boiled Maggi without the tastemaker. The tastemaker contains onion, garlic and the kind—they insisted.
Also, Smriti was never to see her father again, and was not to hang out with boys or men again in any private space either, as Mother insisted.
But the thing with chicken was, in her personal space, Smriti was always experimentative—and various birds, in forms cooked and uncooked, dead and alive, had already crossed her tongue, way before she could recall doing so actively.
So, when she decided to order another drink that day, she decided to publicly accept eating chicken as well. She had no intention of offending anyone older than her, let alone those she liked. So she ordered a bone fry for herself. If somebody was going to see her eat chicken and drink in an open space, so be it.
Theoretically, she knew about alcohol. She did not intend her mother to ever find out about her experiments with alcohol; so she drank only a reasonable amount and returned to her hostel before the curfew at 6 p.m.
Over the semester, she perfected her timing: going out after classes, drinking by herself, and returning on time. She drank a little more every time, increasing the amount methodically. It didn’t taste any different, but Smriti persisted.
She would visit a new place every week and order a new food item and a new kind of alcohol. She had her first public mutton kheema with her first beer. First public beef dry with her first toddy. Smriti found that the same things taste better when you have them sitting alone in a crowded restaurant than sitting absolutely alone.
But theoretically, as far as Mother, family and the general public were concerned, she was a Jain by name and food.
By herself, she wasn’t developing any love for the taste of alcohol—it was still despicable to her tongue—but she did like the alcohol as a thing in itself.
She liked it with friends. She liked it alone. She liked rum. She liked whiskey. She liked wines—red, white and sparkling alike. She liked beers—draughts, crafts, cans, taps, and towers alike. She liked how it changed temperature—cold in her hand but warm inside. She liked how it changed weight—heavy in the bottle, but light inside. She despised the taste of the liquid but liked the taste of a bottle more than a glass. Actually, she liked it better alone than with anyone else.
College was ending in a week, and all the gangs were getting drunk. Smriti’s bunch was just her two roommates, their boyfriends and a chubby guy whom they didn’t mind.
It seems like a haze now, but the chubby guy seemed nicer that evening than he did during the entire college. A try-too-hard, casually sleazy type. But then it was unlikely she would have an encounter with him again anytime in the predictable future.
There was not enough alcohol in her system that he could accept his advances publicly. But enough to stall him until they could find somewhere more secluded. For years, she had resisted getting lured by the taste and smell of human bodies—she couldn’t imagine why. But if there was ever to be a chance to let her tongue do the talking, it was probably then and there.
All she recalls now is the bland taste of beer and ammonia from a toilet. And little green glass bottles and blood. The chubby guy somehow lost a finger that evening, and her friends were no longer on speaking terms with her for a while.
She took a call—to not let alcohol enter her system again. And like a college kid, like college kids do, forgot about the night.
A few years and many promotions later, Smriti finally decided to get into a relationship. It was with a well-to-do Jain guy from her previous workplace. He seemed like the right choice for the life she was designing for herself. Her job itself took 14–16 hours away from her day, weekends included.
Contrary to what Mother thinks, Smriti initiated their meet-cute, which was fairly generic but charming, like a good day in a bad American sitcom. The guy would be the path of least resistance, considering Mother’s perspective—he was Digambara, the same sect as them—and belonged to a family of CAs who wilfully didn’t eat onion, garlic, or anything after sundown. They dated for a year and were now quite comfortable with each other. She understood his tastes well. They moved in together and hired a proper cook and a maid. Life had started feeling a little dal-chawal—predictable and mellow. Her tongue wasn’t itching anymore.
Today, Smriti visited her doctor after feeling a little odd since last week. Her period hadn’t arrived since she turned 30 two months ago. She wasn’t sure what was causing this.
Many tabs about PCOS and ACEs were open on her phone. On her way back home, she remembered they had run out of condoms long ago and hadn’t restocked. She stepped out to get contraceptives, snacks and some liquor. Her fiancé did like to drink occasionally. Smriti fancied the idea of keeping plenty of alcohol at home, though she was unsure of the reason. She wasn’t drinking anymore. Her fiancé wasn’t a heavy drinker either, but she liked him more when he was tipsy.
Smriti still thought about the taste of alcohol from time to time. Smriti felt like opening a little bottle today, though. Would it taste any different today, she wondered?
She wanted to try a Jäegermeister. They say it tastes like mint. She could do mint. She used to like the taste of green glass as well, and this was a nice, cute rectangular bottle. She opened one, but before she could finish her n-th rerun of f.r.i.e.n.d.s., she could no longer find the bottle beside her. She couldn’t find it on her bedside or the kitchen bar either.
Smriti saw a drop of blood on her laptop. She touched her lips. This was new. She had never seen blood dripping from her lips. She went to the toilet to look at it closely. Little bits of green glass were sticking out of her lips.
Smriti wanted to remove something from inside her body. It wanted to come out through her mouth.
Smriti had seen people vomit but had no memory of ever feeling like vomiting herself. Just like crying, she had no idea how to vomit but only understood it in theory.
Unable to bear it, she inserted two of her fingers into her mouth. She pushed as deep as she could to try to move the things inside. Her nails touched the back of her throat, but nothing moved.
The feeling subsided, and she returned to her bed to clean up the blood. She opened herself another snack and bottle. Something stronger this time. Perhaps a good vodka. Or a rum.
After an uncertain number of bottles, her mind felt a little better, and her head a little funny. It was time. Finally.
She went to the bathroom, lifted the lid, kneeled beside the western pot, and once again inserted her fingers deep into her mouth. She waited.
Something started churning in her stomach. Things were moving. The very idea of throwing up, and the subsequent relief seemed deeply enticing. She couldn’t wait to get rid of litres of alcohol and oily snacks inside her. No one was home, and she should be able to clean up before her fiancé returned.
But when it came, it wasn’t just the snacks or the alcohol. Whatever started coming out didn’t seem to stop. It started in reverse—first, her drinks and her chips came together as a sludgy mush. Along came bits of green glass and spots of blood.
Then the stream started getting bigger. Objects large enough to clog the toilet. And they began filling up the bowl: glass, paper, chicken bones and streams of thickened blood. Animal bones, corroded metals, blades, and oddly coloured phlegm. Outside the pot, the bathroom was now flooded as well.
But the relief she was anticipating from letting things out is nowhere in sight, and her stomach now feels larger. She could feel the intestines pulling downward to something deep inside, creating a rubbery stretch up to her mouth. Her intestines were pumping something upward. The entire bathroom and the bedroom were now drenched in familiar but unknown sludge, but all Smriti was anxious about was the clean-up.
What if Mother turned up at her house and saw the state of the room? Mother was not even in the same city or the state, but she could check up on her anytime now. Yet, this idiotic retching isn’t stopping.
For a brief moment, Smriti stood up and looked in the mirror —she could barely see her face. She tried cleaning the mirror with her palm, but it was too wet, yellow, and dirty to make anything out.
A bullet was forming inside her stomach. She bent down again on her knees, in her own mess, facing the clogged pot. There was no point in facing the pot any more, but it still gave a direction to face.
First came out a finger, which somehow looked familiar. Then came a porridge of notebooks, journals, pens, pencils and plastic. The pages had faded cursive handwriting in pencil. There were letters in ink that got smudged before they could dry. Along came many dresses and candies.
Smriti was no longer in control, no longer hiccuping, no longer in discomfort—she only had this urge to pull stuff out from her mouth, intact. Out came a lot of small sequin stud dresses in various shades of pink, blue, yellow, and green, and more notebooks. Drawings of a stick-figure girl putting things in her mouth, and diary covers dating as far back as 20 years. Also, scraps of a school dress. Then came an ink-stained piece of meat. It looked like a bloated penis stained in blue ink.
White, shampoo-like substance, chunks of pencils, crayons, chalk and paper. Smriti believed that she should now be at the end of her retching session, but it didn’t feel so. There was no end to this stream.
How long would this take to clean up, she wondered. Her fiancé would be arriving soon.
Then, the vomit finally stopped.
But she still wanted to vomit. The ‘nausea’ hadn’t stopped. She still wanted to let something out, but nothing came. She tried inducing it again with her fingers, but there was nothing except air.
Maybe if she could put something inside, she would be able to throw it up again. That might help.
Covered in herself, Smriti entered the kitchen. There was no alcohol left in the house, and there was no way she could step out to get any. There were no snacks left either. There was nothing else left in the fridge or the kitchen.
She still wanted to throw up. She tried eating pieces of paper from her wallet—bills and money—but couldn’t even chew them, let alone swallow. She tried coins, rubbers, plastics and anything she could get her hands on. Her teeth started hurting from her attempts. She couldn’t open her mouth.
A tear ran down her eye. Smriti could no longer eat whatever she wanted. The girl who took pride in her ability to eat anything under the sun could no longer put anything in her mouth—not even to vomit.
Salvador Dalí. Les Diners de Gala. Translated by John Peter Moore. Publisher, Felicie, 1973.
Dali, of course, was insane. But his insanity, to borrow Dr. Evil’s description of his parent, Evil pere, “was the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.” Dali’s Les Diners de Gala purports to be a culinary book with 136 recipes organised into 12 chapters. Naturally, Dali supplied his own illustrations, thus saving us the trouble of manufacturing our nightmares. It is a curious paradox that though the world is made for those with normal appetites, it is made by those with abnormal ones. Doubtless, Smriti, the protagonist of Rahul Jain’s story, would have been able to eat her way through every course, every meal, and every last lip-smacking, biology-defying, decency-deflowering, transgressive calorie.
Author | RAHUL JAIN
Rahul Jain completed his B.Tech and M.Tech in Electrical Engineering from IIT Bombay in 2016. After spending a year in banking, he pursued a Masters in Film & Video Communication from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Although he has published scientific papers in Communication and Signal Processing, he actually communicates by drawing comics at ‘tripping_into_30s‘ and painting street dogs at ‘drawstreet_dogs’. Currently based in Bengaluru, he works as a designer, video creator, and content & brand strategist for startups. He spends his time reviewing films and indulging in non-Jain food & drinks, and forcing his opinion on his friends.