Listening to Dorianne Laux: Pause. Poetry

Reading Dorianne Laux’s poems is like taking in a deep breath and realizing that your lungs have never been used this way before – that all these days, you have wasted their capacity to hold, and you begin to worry – now that you have discovered it – this late in life – is there any point?

But of course, asking if there is any point to it is to miss the point entirely. I don’t have a train to catch. Even if I do, even if I am grossly late and have missed the train – I can always get to the next station and catch the train at my own pace. ‘No need to hurry, no need to shine’, Virginia Woolf said.

I read this poem by Dorianne Laux today. It is a regular day and like any other regular day, I am daydreaming about fighting with my parents. About marriage, about babies – about all the things that they want of me, that I do not want to give.

In these dreams, I am tall and wearing jeans that stretch easily whether I am running or walking. My mother’s loud voice cuts the air and lands on my hands. I run out the door and make life elsewhere. This poem fit in beautifully on this day and after I’d read it, the afternoon stretched itself out like a yawn and sat with me.

Waitress

When I was young and had to rise at 5 a.m.
I did not look at the lamplight slicing
through the blinds and say: Once again
I have survived the night. I did not raise
my two hands to my face and whisper:
This is the miracle of my flesh. I walked
toward the cold water waiting to be released
and turned the tap so I could listen to it
thrash through the rusted pipes.
I cupped my palms and thought of nothing.

I dressed in my blue uniform and went to work.
I served the public, looked down on its
balding skulls, the knitted shawls draped
over its cancerous shoulders, and took its orders,
wrote up or easy or scrambled or poached
in the yellow pad’s margins and stabbed it through
the tip of the fry cook’s deadly planchette.
Those days I barely had a pulse. The manager
had vodka for breakfast, the busboys hid behind
the bleach boxes from the immigration cops,
and the head waitress took ten percent
of our tips and stuffed them in her pocket
with her cigarettes and lipstick. My feet
hurt. I balanced the meatloaf-laden trays.
Even the tips of my fingers ached.
I thought of nothing except sleep, a TV set’s
flickering cathode gleam washing over me,
baptizing my greasy body in its watery light.
And money, slipping the tassel of my coin purse
aside, opening the silver clasp, staring deep
into that dark sacrificial abyss.
What can I say about that time, those years
I leaned against the rickety balcony on my break,
smoking my last saved butt?
It was sheer bad luck when I picked up
the glass coffee pot and spun around
to pour another cup. All I could think
as it shattered was how it was the same shape
and size as the customer’s head. And this is why
I don’t believe in accidents, the grainy dregs
running like sludge down his thin tie
and pinstripe shirt like they were channels
riven for just this purpose.
It wasn’t my fault. I
know that. But what, really,
was the hurry? I dabbed at his belly with a napkin.
He didn’t have a cut on him (physics) and only
his earlobe was burned. But my last day there
was the first day I looked up as I walked, the trees
shimmering green lanterns under the Prussian blue
particulate sky, sun streaming between my fingers
as I waved at the bus, running, breathing hard, thinking:
This is the grand phenomenon of my body. This thirst
is mine. This is my one and only life.

 

On a Monday, the sentiment of “This thirst is mine. This is my one and only life” is enough to hold my own against my mother’s loud voice and her big hungry eyes.

***

Listening to Dorianne Laux read out her poems is like swallowing a long pause.

What is a pause anyway? A dot. a comma, a semi colon; — in the breathless routine of the everyday. But here with her, as she tastes each pause, as she smacks her lips after every line, you taste the pause too and before you know it, the afternoon is not yawning anymore – it is quietly awake and softly blinking.

 

 

I have some answers for you

  1. Why are you writing so many ‘Dalit- Dalit’ things these days?
screener tv

Gif credits: Screener tv

While “I’ll write what I want” is generally a good response to stick with– I’m going to explain this to you with love, (because you seem like you have the potential to be a better person) and also with swalpa sarcasm (because I cannot able to control)

See for the longest time no? I had no idea why people were behaving the way they did with me:

  • why their tone changed from respectful (while talking to someone standing right next to me) to patronizing (the moment they noticed me)
  • why they thought that people were just being polite to me when they said they liked my blog (since there’s no possible way my blog could be nice)
  • why they were obsessed with how I ‘got to’ hang out with good looking intellectual people since obviously I don’t have the credentials to hang out with good-looking intellectual people at K or anywhere else
  • why they thought that the only way I was getting published was because people were doing me favors
  • why Savarna students thought/and continue to think that they have absolutely nothing to learn from me (this is getting too boring to deal with. I mean swalpa originality should be there even in Savarna-ness no? Too much to ask?)
  • why they thought it’s ok to tell me that they ‘don’t mind’ editing my writing (even if they don’t have the experience with either editing or writing) – even if they are just a Brahmin engineer with good English and a better internet connection.
Gifer

ZIZEK!!!  Gif credits: Gifer

It didn’t occur to me then to say fuck off. I thought they were right. So I spent some time doubting myself – maybe I really hadn’t earned my NET, maybe I really am not qualified to teach, maybe I’ll never be a good writer.

All of this was laid to rest when a friend made me see caste in all of this. After that I couldn’t see it any other way.

When Marquez read the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he fell off the bed. He didn’t know that people were allowed to lie in stories. AM says that that moment was as though someone had given Marquez permission to write.

book manial

Gif credits: Book Manial

AM himself has been the biggest permission to me – to stop whining and start writing.

(A man who could sit in a library, and read through the day, however, sounded like a more realisable ideal of freedom)

When this permission appeared, my relationship with writing changed. Until that point and sometimes even now, writing was torture because my sentences didn’t sound beautiful, my control over structure was a useless battle, and the Savarna reader in my head wouldn’t stop shrugging, grunting and yawning.

I have often told Christina that reading her feels like a hundred dams are breaking inside me. It’s because reading her feels like permission to shoot the Savarna reader in my head. After the shots were fired, my writing relaxed. It took a deep breath and decided that it just has to write.

So, dear friend – when I finally feel like I have the permission to write, why won’t I? It’s definitely not new. I have been writing ‘Dalit-Dalit’ things for sometime now. Read my old blog-posts if you haven’t already 🙂

    2.  Will you ever write about ‘normal things’?

Credits: gfycat

Gig Credits: gfycat

It won’t seem normal enough to you because for you – entitlement is probably normal.

Lol. Ok see. I was on a panel earlier this year – it was about Savarna control over documentaries. There were a bunch of snooty Savarna peeps who sat in the first few rows and rolled their eyes because apparently the panel was about a “serious topic” and I was not being serious or political enough.

When I asked the panelists if they thought that being Dalit meant that we could only write about political things that concern Dalits — Thank god for Gee, because he said – “I want to see a Dalit writer write about romance and food. I want to see a Dalit director make horror films”

If only we had some of my (DBA) people in the audience, I’m sure there would have been claps and hoots and whistles and pelvic thrusts (I am thinking about my lovely sisters from the writing workshop here)

Gif credits: out.com

Gif credits: out.com

So basically – I want to write about everything. I want to write about farmers, I want to write about Mayawati, I want to write about Ranveer Singh, I want to write about Joan Didion, I want to write about Siddalingaiah, I want to write about Koffee with Karan, I want to write about Bollywood films and weddings, I want to write about fashion, travel, food, cows, and birds. I want to see my short stories get published in Caravan, Round Table, Dalit Camera, Granta, fucking New Yorker even. Because I want to be a good writer. Because I don’t want to stop learning, ever. Ever.

  3. How can you write about Koffee with Karan and about being Dalit at the same time?

Via Rajesh Rajamani

Via Rajesh Rajamani

Arre. Let me ask you a question – how many Dalit people do you know? And how many Dalit writers do you know who write about popular culture?

Don’t Dalit people watch TV? Shouldn’t they also watch Koffee with Karan like you secretly do (under the covers)? Don’t Dalit people go to pubs? Don’t we like drinking? Don’t we like wearing nice clothes?

And please don’t give me this political-volitical nonsense. I have seen enough Savarna boys in college who suddenly become Angry Savarna Boys. Then they obviously read Das Kapital in sports fields (because everywhere else is too mainstream), then they talk about philosophy and Marx — only to go get an MA and to go join some Infosys or Accenture.

So, excuse me for not taking you seriously.

giphy

From giphy.com

   4. So what is the point of all this?

Basically it’s this – Ambedkar once told me to tell you – I can’t stop being Dalit just because you are casteless, macha. So stop being an ass.

tenor

Gif Credits: tenor

       ****

30~

As a Tamil woman,

I am fierce in love,

like all Tamil women are –

when they run towards their lovers

with gritted teeth and dancing hair

*

As a Konkani woman,

my laugh will match your fart

— in loudness and vulgarity

*

As a Malayali woman,

my hair is messy, like a good joke.

— but if you walk into it with all your heart

you might have a good time

*

As a Kannada woman,

I hug tightly

— and when you wake up next to me

on cold November mornings

like this one

I will hug you with all that I have

— and all that I am yet to have

*

As a Hindi woman

I will open doors and windows

— with the longing of a mother

waiting to escape her life

— with the passion of Chameli

waiting to elope with Charandas.

*

As an English woman

I will make pots and pots of tea

and drink them all up

until my belly swells

and I cannot walk

*

Today I am all these women

and we are walking back home-

arm-in-arm

expertly avoiding all the cows in Basavanagudi.

___

A room of my own

Today I am thinking about Virginia Woolf and how old I was when I first heard ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’

I wonder if I understood what she meant when I heard it at 22. I must have smiled like I smile when I hear nice things. But this morning I felt the force of her words and didn’t smile.

Was she talking to women who don’t own their time? If you are a 30- year- old Indian woman, living with your parents and resisting marriage – you definitely don’t own your time. It is eaten up whole on mornings when news of cousins getting married or having babies arrives like a bagful of steel dropped by huge birds on your dining table. They come with a crash. Then the birds take off and there is dust everywhere.

On quieter mornings, there is dust inside me. I have to soothe them by reaching into my body and ironing them with my hands. Reading ‘To the Lighthouse’ felt like that.

A room of my own – in my parent’s house- no matter how much I make it mine by decorating it with pretty fairy lights, and pictures of women reading and writing, and a picture of Adichie saying strong things that tear themselves out of the frame and land angrily on my table, a picture of Marquez smiling into the corners of his laughing eyes, and a picture of Ambedkar telling me to be at work when I am at work – is still not mine. This room is not my own.

It belongs to the crashing sound of vessels in the kitchen, the red dot of my mother’s silence, the anger of my father’s tissue-white pajamas, and the sounds that could have been – if like they had told me – I was married by now and had babies.

***

I know I will have a room of my own one day. I know it’s why I was born. It will have peeling yellow walls and a kettle that makes flurry noise when it’s ready. It will open out to a terrace where the evening birds come to drink water and the morning sun comes to dry clothes. The nearby Adhan will remind me of something – home perhaps. And this is my fear – that when I finally have a room of my own – I will miss the sounds of the room that were not my own.

That I will miss the hiss of the pressure cooker, the well-shaped hole of my father’s yawns, the eyelashes of my mother’s sighs, the heaviness of my brother’s footsteps when he goes to open the front door, and the socks that my sister wears and unwears.

But then – I tell myself – I will always miss these sounds, no matter where I am. I will probably miss them more if I’m waking up next to a husband every morning.

At least – in a room of my own with peeling yellow walls – I will wake up alone and crush Cardamom pods loudly for my chai, without worrying that I am waking anybody else.

dd

24 days

In 24 days, I will be 30. If I was younger, I’d have said I am looking forward to my birthday. Today I only want to say I am looking forward to the days before and after my 30th birthday, just as much as I am looking forward to my 30th birthday. Maybe I really am growing up if I am more excited by 24 days than by the 24th day this month.

If I was younger I’d have the energy & the shamelessness to make a bullet journal for my birthday month & do one thing that excites me for 24 days. I’d sit at the dining table, smiling like a child opening crayon boxes, and giant handmade books. I’d have told myself to write every day for 24 days. I’d have told myself to wake up early and watch the sunrise every day for 24 days.

Maybe I really am growing up because I still want to do all those things but the heart is still full from reading Mary Oliver and that seems enough.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Even so, I wish that for as long as I am alive, I am as shameless as I was when I was 16, 22, 24, 28.

Also today, reading poems by Dorianne Laux seems enough. Maybe that’s why we should read poetry more often, to fill ourselves with it only to realize that we were thirsty all this while.

Family Stories

I had a boyfriend who told me stories about his family,
how an argument once ended when his father
seized a lit birthday cake in both hands
and hurled it out a second-story window. That,
I thought, was what a normal family was like: anger
sent out across the sill, landing like a gift
to decorate the sidewalk below. In mine
it was fists and direct hits to the solar plexus,
and nobody ever forgave anyone. But I believed
the people in his stories really loved one another,
even when they yelled and shoved their feet
through cabinet doors, or held a chair like a bottle
of cheap champagne, christening the wall,
rungs exploding from their holes.
I said it sounded harmless, the pomp and fury
of the passionate. He said it was a curse
being born Italian and Catholic and when he
looked from that window what he saw was the moment
rudely crushed. But all I could see was a gorgeous
three-layer cake gliding like a battered ship
down the sidewalk, the smoking candles broken, sunk
deep in the icing, a few still burning.

 

Have a nice day!

Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from

After a student was told that Dalit women have a constitutionally protected act in workplaces and anybody choosing to attack such women teachers with an intention to malign them professionally would be reported to the cops; the light left his face, he touched his hair just so he could do something with his hands and his eyes grew small with fear.

He may have gulped twice before leaving the room, shaking with rage. But he never bothered me after that. Even the smug way in which he passed by me in the corridor vanished. The gossip and the malice continued of course but the glint of fear I saw in his eyes that day remained.

The Savarna woman sitting next to me shrank in size. But she remained big in my head until I discovered Ambedkar.

There was continued debate whether that speech, the interference, as they saw it, was necessary. It was necessary. It helped – because in that moment, in that room, something shifted – without harming anyone. And I continue to be curious about how a simple reminder about the constitution can produce fear in someone who is extremely confident in assessing other people’s abilities.

I am amazed that the man who built the constitution that long ago was able to see so deep into our futures and know why even the ‘right’ kind of money, marriage, color, place would still be insufficient to live with dignity.

But how much of what happened in that room that day was triggered by my caste? Did they know I am Dalit? Does them not knowing it before they attacked make them innocent? Are they innocent? Am I making a big deal? Am I being a fraud by invoking caste in this narrative ‘suddenly’ ? —  were only some of the many questions I asked myself everyday. Until a much larger question arrived and my doubts were laid to rest. Why is it my burden to ask these questions and look for answers?

It is their burden.

Even so, I take that Ambedkar is warning us. We cannot live and die inside our castes, even if people will make sure we do. Just as there are ways in which we believe that everything is about caste, there are also ways to believe that not everything is about caste. And neither is wrong.

How do people live castelessly though? Is that possible?

I find it fascinating that some people can walk the earth as if they don’t need anybody. As if they’ve never needed anybody. It’s probably why I loved Piku, that 2015 film. I loved watching her. I loved that she was able to just walk away from conversations and men that she wasn’t interested in. She didn’t spend time impressing anyone. She didn’t wonder if anybody liked her, and even if she did – she definitely didn’t run around making compromises in her life to accommodate them.

Where does she get the strength from though? It wasn’t all because of her overbearing father no? I am not questioning it, I am celebrating it. And today I am still celebrating it while also being acutely, painfully aware of an answer to why she might be the way she is: Caste.

Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from. The strength that men and women perform onscreen and off, that I adore from the very core of my heart gains power from caste.

Balamma from Gogu Shyamala’s stories walks that way too. She has to. Because like her, there are many who don’t have access to the PoA act even though it was made for them. And the villains in their lives are real, unlike those in mine who, at the mere mention of Ambedkar and Constitution, vanish like the memory of a loose underwear.

Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org

Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org

Two months at home; and indebted to Joan Didion & Jackie Chan

 

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My foot is now breathing in a tub of hot water. Barely two weeks ago, I was lying in bed, my foot hoisted up on pillows – the left leg waiting to erupt from layers of dead skin – all chafed and dry. I was almost sad to see the plaster go. I’d begun to enjoy peeling bits of skin from wherever my hands could reach. They’d gather in heaps of smiling flakes as I grew hungrier for more.

Amma changed the sheets and pillow covers once a week – on the day she’d give me a bath. The flakes would then scatter themselves across the room meaninglessly, like dust.

She insisted on giving me a bath twice a week but it was too much work so I convinced her that once a week was more than enough. I put shame and nakedness through various measurements and with every passing day, I began to fear it lesser and lesser. It began on the day of the fall – the very first day when Amma had to cut open the jeans I was wearing, which was anyway torn from below the knee to make room for the horrid white plaster.

There was no sense to the pause my body offered before taking my clothes off in front of her. She was quick to notice the scars on my body that’d faded over the years. One from the time I dumped hot chai point chai on my stomach, another from the time the hot parachute bottle melted from under my palms and burnt a good part of my thigh (don’t microwave parachute oil bottles)

As I chanted the history behind each scar, she shampooed my hair. And when she poured green hot water down my back, she looked more relieved than I was — scrubbing my back with all the energy she had – almost as if offering compensation for the loud dry zone which was my plastered foot, sitting smugly inside 2 dustbin bags.

In my mind, I observed that this was the closest she’d come to giving me the balanteero bath that they give to pregnant women. She has dreamed of giving me those baths even more than wanting grandchildren.

***

Days dissolved into watching reruns of women taking Karan Johar’s ass on his show and rewinding all the Eli Gold and Elizabeth Tascioni moments on The Good Wife. When I felt like writing and couldn’t, I sought Joan Didion.

I sped through The Year of Magical Thinking with an obsession to grow old like Didion. One December morning, her daughter was hospitalized. After spending a day in and out of the ICU – Didion and her husband returned home, unsure if they would see their daughter alive the next day. They sat down for dinner and her husband collapsed on the table with a heart attack, and died.

From that point on, my little fracture grief  became laughably manageable. It was ok that I could only listen to the rain and not watch it. It made me wonder if I’d ever really listened to rain and not just watched it – which is not too different from a grunt acknowledgement. After all what is rain without its sound?

In the two months I spent at home, there were two evenings whose colors belonged in a painting. From my dining table, I watched the Bangalore sky glowing furiously and pleasantly – or somewhere between the two which – as I have come to realise – is something that only Bangalore sky is capable of (As D would say)

Its orange was pleasant, but its force was furious. It came in shocks of rectangle and threw itself on the table, lingering there for a while before slowly fading.

***

A friend mentioned Frida one day and I spent the entire day in bed feeling grateful. It’s the one film that I have watched over and over again in the last two months.

The plaster was still on when I was told to walk without support. I cringed. With every half step I took, I expected to hear the crunch of bones and iron. I am now a firm believer of right time. Sometimes it is just not the right time to watch certain films. It’s probably why I had never watched Kill Bill and now was the time to watch it. Moments after Kill Bill Vol: 2, I took my first step with no support and walked on feeling proud as fuck even as I was imagining the Kill Bill Ironside Siren Sound playing somewhere.

Reading Cheryl Strayed and Rebecca Solnit made me think about walking a lot more intensely than that fucker Proust. And now I cannot wait to listen to the sound of my walk.

Those were my strong moments. In my most vulnerable moments, I thought about my astrologer aunt who had warned me about this accident months before I fell. She has predicted all my accidents so far. My resistance was weak and I was going to succumb to the haze of stars and shani, rahu and ketu and whatever when I suddenly remembered Jackie Chan.

I discovered that the man has had 14 major injuries in his life including a brain surgery and an eyebrow bone fracture that almost left him blind. He has slipped into a coma from hitting his head trying to jump off trees, leapt through a real window instead of a fake one, survived a Cervical spine damage from falling from a 25 meter clock tower and has had Pelvis dislocation almost causing partial paralysis. If this man had to listen to my aunty astrologer, he’d have had to quit doing what he loves long ago. Where the fuck is the place for Rahu kala Shani kala in Jackie Chan’s life?

Image Credits: myhero.com

Image Credits: myhero.com

Thanks to Joan & Jackie, I am writing from the other side with whatever little is left of my dignity.

One step at a time

Mouma left today and I spent the entire day feeling afraid. I have been avoiding writing.  Not that I was ever writing like a mofo. But I am more afraid of writing now than I ever was. Maybe because I am afraid of writing That Story –  the only story I have ever cared about. It doesn’t make sense to put so much pressure on one story. But if I am going to do it – I might as well just shut up and do it.

I am afraid it won’t be pretty – that its words won’t be beautiful like I want them to be. But after struggling with myself for what seems like a month – I have finally decided to give in. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just needs to be written.

Found this by accident today and it has made me see whom I am writing for.

Events from the last two days have made the audience in my head clearer. These tweets by Christina Mimi, and Darde have made me rethink a lot of things about my people, my world and the annoying Savarna reader in my head whose shadow I seem to be living in. I should probably kill her and start writing. Mouma would do that. Even though the only thing she wants right now is for me to be married – _ –

This resting period taught me some interesting things –  I had to learn how to walk all over again. My first step post – surgery was a monumental one. I had been panicking – wondering if I could ever walk normally again. But all I had to do was take it slow – one step at a time. Now, if only I can do that with my writing then all will be well.

 

The one where Gabito screws me over again

I won’t lie. Even when I was imagining my grand reading plan for the 2 month long break, I didn’t believe it, which is why I must have imagined it in lovely colors like the orange of a Bangalore evening and the red of Mangalore mud. Even so, a girl can hope. Especially a girl who is soon going to walk with a cane, Dr. House style.

I was swallowed by the vortex of watching shit after shit on Netflix. I succumbed beautifully. When guilt finally arrived, it was too late. I had to attend to serious work shining with deadlines and all.

Often good things happen when I do serious work. The most important of them all is that I crave absent-mindedness for a bit so I take a break, go to Facebook, and see what shit I was doing in 2008, 2012, 2014. And I find things that make me giggle, make me put my fist in the mouth and bite, make me howl with laughter, and rarely something that will make me wonder – hey why haven’t I seen this before, what’s wrong with me?

Today was one such day. I wish every day is like this. I curse the days when I am not easily moved by wanting to be moved.

rsz_img_20180928_142002_01

I watched this interview today and got some orange and red back in my life. It’s Gabito’s. He’s saying nice things about writing. Basically things that make me wonder what is stopping me from writing. Why can’t I shut up and write? I also realized why I’m wildly attracted to him. When he was talking, I couldn’t stop watching his face. I imagined him in bed. And concluded that he’ll be damn good. Cuddling included.

Ok shy is coming. This is what he said:

“Writing fiction is like hypnosis. You must hypnotize the reader so he only thinks about the story he’s being told. You need a lot of nails, screws, and hinges for him not to wake up. This is what I call carpentry – the narrative technique in a book, or in a film. Inspiration is one thing, but narration is different. Telling a story and turning it into a literary reality which enthralls the reader is impossible without this carpenter’s work.

To enthrall a reader is to control his breathing rhythm. It mustn’t be interrupted, if we don’t want him to wake up. When I’ve reached this rhythm in my writing and I realise one of my sentences has gotten stuck in a clumsy rhythm, I add one or two adjectives — even if they shouldn’t be there. Their function is to prevent the reader from waking up. That’s carpentry.”

Sigh.

That nails and screws bit made me shudder. There’s enough carpentry in my body as it is.

If I'm ever found unconscious and docs are hurling me into an MRI machine. Pliss stop them.

If I’m ever found unconscious, and the docs are hurling me into an MRI machine. Pliss stop them.

But yes – many sighs and yellow butterflies. You can watch the interview here:

https://fod.infobase.com/p_ViewPlaylist.aspx?AssignmentID=6X7RDV

In other news, my 3 -year- old nephew finds my tattoo damn funny. He asked me who it was. I said Gabito. He said ‘Tomato’ and squealed.

Now he calls me tomato.

Some thoughts on Teaching in the age of many Fs

I don’t remember her name and this makes me feel guilty. Because that was one of the first few things I’d learnt as a teacher. AM had told me – Always learn their names. Don’t mark attendance by calling out numbers. In a system that reduces students to numbers, making the effort to learn and remember their names is a way of showing kindness. And I had failed.

She was a science student who was in a General English class I had taught long ago. I didn’t remember her although her face was familiar. She wanted help with her term paper. I spoke to her about research for a while and she said she’d come back the next day with some writing.

She came promptly the next day. I was in a biting hurry to prepare for a class and became terribly impatient with my feedback to her writing. She sensed this and said she’d come back another day. I said ok and went back to my notes. I forgot about her after my class, and surrendered to the general blurriness of the day. A little after lunch, I went to the filter to get water, and found her sitting on the ledge, eating lunch alone.

She said, ‘No, my friends eat in the canteen’ when I asked her why she was eating by herself. Quickly she returned to her Puliyogre and I felt stupid asking her that. At any given point in college – there are many students who eat their lunch alone. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I had done something to contribute to her loneliness in particular. It seemed like no ordinary moment. Something was happening. Without meaning to, the girl had shown me my impatience. I called her back in and we spoke about her term paper.

Her mother and father worked as tailors in Marathahalli. She had an older brother in Chennai who also worked. She left home at 7 every morning, changed two-three buses to get to college and returned at 6 in the evening to take math tuition for neighbour kids. She said it paid enough to manage extra college expenses.

I wasn’t sure what to say next. But she helped. She only wanted to get her term paper out of the way so she could get back to her life. Months later she came to get my signature. I never saw her after that.

That was a long while ago and I return to that moment often. It made me see how teachers have an odd power in contributing to the loneliness of students that is often imposed by institutions. It made me see how small kindnesses can go a long way in making some of this loneliness go away. Much of the business of being a teacher today is about this.

rsz_cow-a-visit-to-the-panopticon1

In the month of May this year, I was assigned admission duty. I was in charge of verifying documents before sending the student and parents to the interview round. I sort of began to enjoy this. I learnt to observe people. They behaved like their surnames. What I was seeing before me was what I had read about in Ambedkar’s writings.

Sometimes heavy surnames meant that the fathers were answering all the questions I had asked their daughters, while their mothers pointedly sat a little away from the whole process. Sometimes it meant that fathers were the ones asking me questions – ‘What guarantee can you give me that if I send my son here, he will get a good MNC job later?’

It also meant that I got to see the other side of the structure – what do those who don’t have surname power do?

In the afternoon I saw a frail looking girl and her father walking towards me slowly. They looked frightened and it seemed as though they were expecting to be asked to leave. They stared at me when I smiled at them and weren’t sure if they could sit down, even after the attender and I told them to please sit.

The girl sat and pulled her father by the elbow — signalling to him that it was ok to sit. I asked for her documents and knew that she was SC. She wants to study history she said. Throughout our conversation, her father appeared very uncomfortable. His focus was on impending danger – that numbness in teeth we sometimes feel right before we crash. Almost as if he was sure something wrong was going to happen any moment now. His hands shivered when the girl showed him where to sign on the application form. Still trembling, he wrote his name down in block letters.

It wasn’t hard to guess why they were frightened or what their prior experiences with institutions were like. It’s baffling no? That to some institutions are just buildings. And to others, it’s a battleground. At least battlegrounds offer the impression of an equal fight. This was prison.

***

I wonder why the science girl approached me in the first place. Maybe no one else took her in, maybe she was less afraid of coming to me, or maybe something in the General English classes gave her the impression that she could come to me. Either way, I learnt more from her than she did from me.

Often among students, the assumption is that the General English classes are spaces to unwind, something they needn’t take very seriously – especially since it is not their core subject. And this is not a problem. Students do need to unwind and if classroom spaces are offering them that, then good.

But beyond the unwinding or the general whining about these classes, it is ultimately a student like that science girl who seems to really get the point behind GE classes. Whether it is a student like Deepak Bhat who sat in the last bench and inspired this blog post, and managed to give a whole new direction to teachers like me. Or like Sevanthi Murugaiyyan who took her life in 2016 – it is the unprivileged who value learning more than the privileged.

Probably because they recognize love and mercy much more naturally than those who spread hate. And only the privileged have the energy to hate.

When there is too much privilege in the classroom and too much hate in the country, these lines bring me a sense of direction:

“When people you know yap without reservation about merit, and how “they” are taking away what is “yours,” maybe you should remember this girl’s story. Remember, perhaps, the loneliness of those who struggle against odds greater than you can ever know, and how little the abstract mercy of our system can help those who fight hard and grow weary. Practice the small humility that can come from knowing”

The abstract mercy of our system is Reservation, yes. And it is also a classroom space where sometimes a student who never spoke in school finds the courage to speak, it’s also a syllabus that opens up a whole new world to a student who fought with his parents in Bihar, dropped out of engineering, and came all the way to Bangalore to study Journalism.

And for this, I am grateful.

***

Featured Image Credits: John Ryle
A visit to the Panopticon