In September, I came to stay with my mother for two weeks in small-town Kerala. It may be two years soon, if the pandemic does not leave us any better. In this house, I have a room of my own, painted green, a colour I loved as a seventeen-year-old.
To my mother, I am still a rebellious teenager, not a thirty-something adult repelled by green walls. We do not get along. We are too alike. I say frequently that she is too naïve and selfless. My unfettered Mumbai life is met with rules. I want a house where the curtains can stay shut and meals can be skipped. I cannot seem to make her understand that some days, my mind has spiralled into a dark place and I’d rather stay inside.
Instead, I say “The plastic sheet on the dining table looks tacky” and remove it.
She says I am grumpy. She warns me about ‘shady places’ when I go out with a friend and follows up with “When will you be back home?” When a retired uncle jokes that he and I are ‘jobless people’, my mother laughs the loudest. Many nights, I cry in my room.
My husband finds it funny that I seek validation at this age.
I don’t, I tell him.
But later, watching the Korean dramas I love, I realise that I do. I relish the parent, employer, or friend saying “proud of you” to the main character. I find the freedom I long for in these Korean women—new apartments, late nights, and work lunches. I await the familiar tropes—rich heirs, love triangles, childhood friends-turned-lovers, trips, and one-room-only hijinks that will all occur over 16-20 episodes. Redemptive arc for villains and happy endings for minor characters? Yes please.
I came to Kerala on an impulse, for a short break. The lease on our Mumbai apartment was almost up and finances were shrivelled for dream-rentals. Our fights were getting messier, contrary to when we flew into the city years ago, ready to take on the world, like how young people in love always are. Staying separately, our lives were now taken over by clashed timings, muted notifications and phone calls mostly filled with silence. I clicked some sexy photos, then deleted them all, and sent a selfie. I wondered if we would survive.
Staying in a room of my own, I found pleasure in Something in the Rain where a 35-year-old woman goes about her life with a nagging mother, a younger love interest, and bowls of food. It is a portrait of her simply existing—working, walking around the city, moving out of home. It reminded me of old, toxic workplaces (though different from the drama, where the heroine is sexually targeted) and an old Mumbai memory of a big pot of boiling water spilling over me. I remember feeling happy about asking my superior for a week’s leave as my skin bubbled up and the pain became unbearable. The fading mark on my thigh is as long as my palm. I wonder if steady money would’ve been nice, if it would have granted me a house of my own. But as I recap a favourite drama to write this piece in a room that is beginning to grow on me, I find I am all right.
Something in the Rain reminds me of what I miss most when away from my husband. Hugs. And eating together. I record myself drinking tea and send it to him. He sends back a video of samosas with pudina chutney. We rekindle our conversations through badly lit food videos. He misses the fiery red fish curry, appams and palaharams (snacks). I miss dahi puris and croissants.
Life gives us K-drama moments, but we don’t see them until we take a step back. When my husband makes a surprise visit for our anniversary, I ask myself ‘why’ for the next three months. A ‘Jeju island picnic with friends’ happens in Alleppey with biryani and lemonade. Our couple roadtrip is a drive to my grandmother’s hometown, bringing back pappadams made by an old acquaintance, which according to her are the only kind worth eating. Mumbai-Kerala flights begin taking over browser histories. ‘Hospital episodes’, in which my uncle and mother nursed my grandmother after two major heart attacks, bring us closer together as a family. I find myself lacking as a daughter. But when I listen to old movie songs with my grandmother and cheer her into trying to walk, I feel all right.
In this new life, I am free from the responsibilities that come with having a house of my own. I feel hopeful watching buckwheat fields, occult roommates, tea with a grim reaper and butterfly-gods in Goblin. I find comfort in the grand sentiments—every life is touched by a deity; and god cannot control destiny. In Goblin, each human has four lives—to sow, water, reap and consume the harvest. I wondered which one I was living in now.
Because in K-dramas, there are always second chances. You might be a goblin’s bride or born again. Your love might be an alien (My Love from the Star). You can run back from the bridge of afterlife into true love’s arms (Hotel Del Luna). Happiness always finds you.
The first K-drama to which I lost my heart—and sleep—was Playful Kiss. I was in my early twenties, and hallyu was invading our hostels through pirated K-dramas. A high-schooler, bad at studies, falls for the brilliant-in-all-things hero and wins his heart—(but he always liked her too. Surprise!). I watched it again last year and though my tastes have changed, I wondered if being in love makes us silly and vulnerable.
The petite, unassuming bodyguard in Strong Girl Bong Soon, whose supernatural strength always saves the day, was one of my early favourites. I found a sassier Bong-soon in Yi-seo of Itaewon Class. Here was an ambitious, feisty, marketing-inclined twenty-year-old charting her life with more clarity than I have ever had. While Itaewon Class remains a man’s success story, I loved the women—the career-driven ‘other girl’ and the woman who wants to take over a conglomerate business. I fell for the arrogant, insouciant Man-wol (Hotel del Luna) who runs a debt-ridden ghost-hotel but shops for luxury cars. Under her spell, I tweaked my paltry expenses on Excel sheets. These dramas , though moulded in patriarchy, give women fulfilment, and dialogues. The finale seldom comes from attaining love—women create games (Strong Girl Bong Soon) or carve guitars (Memories of the Alhambra).
I cheered on the working women—an art curator in Her Private Life and entrepreneur in Crash Landing on You—for their business skills. As someone who apparently “simply sits and reads novels”, watching women—adults—being unapologetic about fandoms in Her Private Life was inspiring. In The Temperature of Love, a struggling screenwriter—with a wardrobe to die for—in whom I naturally saw myself, falls for a chef. They navigate long-distance troubles and creative blocks over soups. I swooned at quaint Spanish cafes and cobbled roads in The Memories of the Alhambra and panicked over murders in augmented reality video games. My husband and I watched it together over many weeks between Kerala-Mumbai trips. I wondered if I should escape to Goa—that honeymoon trip that never materialized—and run an AirBnb, like the heroine. I spent days googling mansions in Goa, then weeks staring at my green walls.
Sky Castle remains my favourite drama yet. This is the world of rich doctors and lawyers who want their children to get into top universities. There are special study rooms (with pyramids to inspire competition), coaching experts and group studies. It made me remember my exhausting entrance exam days, huddled in ugly crying. My youngest cousin, then a kid, is now waiting for her exam dates for the medical entrance.
“It is a mad race in Korea, worse than India”, she says.
We tease each other that my uncle is a mild version of the success-obsessed Professor Cha, then exchange drama recommendations. I find myself slipping K-drama into work emails (and getting some back). I learn I love back hugs, and hate wrist grabs. I look forward to food spreads in on-screen homes.
Like many Asian mothers who express their love through food, there is a big spread at every meal, a luxury I am unaccustomed to in Mumbai. In Kerala, the table creaks under the weight of thoran, mezhukkupuratti, moru, sambar, thenga chammanthi, and sometimes payasam. Turmeric and oil stains illustrate the table mats.
Two months later, the plastic sheet reappears on the table.
Korean dramas are big on friendships. Watching Hello, My Twenties–about five college girls sharing an apartment, and having beer nights—led to a two-hour phone call with a friend to whom my last text from two years ago read ‘Call you in five’. I exchanged book recommendations with another who is working from home. Some phone calls didn’t go well—a college friend talked solely about her toddler for an hour, another texted me to start thinking about babies because it is too late already. I wish our worries had remained the same—deadlines, attendance shortage, love interests and pimples.
I look for rented apartments to move out, but the pandemic hits. My husband visits me for my birthday in March and finds himself stranded in Kerala because of the lockdown. This is probably the longest time we have spent with one another since our wedding. We shout “thank god, we aren’t in tiny houses in Mumbai”. Inside, I worry about us being stuck in one room, working from two ends of one table. But instead, I find us going for bakery runs (fish cutlets, puffs and vadas), cooking—kneading porotta dough together and tempering an indulgent egg roast—and being all right.
Sometimes there are no big reveals. Situations and people do not change as drastically as I want them to. Instead, I look for the certainties in my life—the dramas teach me that this is what gives comfort. I know that after a long day, there will be a cup of the best black coffee made by a man who does not drink coffee. I know I will get the last ethakkappam, something I longed for as a teenager. Fruits—guavas, rose apples, rambutans—plucked from trees find their way to me, if not flowers. But in between these gestures, our insecurities catch up, tickle our sleeping demons, scare us, and go back inside their boxes. We hug. But always, a little has changed. And it worries me.
If I had my way, I would be in the last but one episode in a K-drama. The one where you are shy of the happily-ever-after. As I type, my husband is planning a return to Mumbai. I am staying back. I wonder what will happen to us. I wonder when I’ll spend my paycheck on revamping my wardrobe and not on books. I imagine my mother running after me like Something in the Rain. In our case, this is a small lane, the sides sprouting with overgrowth, and spotted with pulpy mangoes. Like in the drama, I’ll ask “What’s gotten into you” and she will say “When things get hard you can always come back”. We will hug—we never do—and laugh that we aren’t compatible to live together. But we’ll know in our hearts that we always care in a way the other doesn’t understand. I dream that there is a house somewhere, one that I will decorate with white paint, bare tables and book piles. Until then, there are palaharams on our plastic-sheet-covered table, phone calls connecting neon-lit Mumbai balconies and nightly cricket-sirens in Kerala. And a green-walled room that nests my soul.