On Self-respect or how to unpark a car in Basavanagudi

This Insta series was originally published on the Scrolls & Leaves Podcast.

Ever since I first read Joan Didion’s essay on self-respect a couple of years ago, I have taken it to every class I teach. My wish, that it gives young girls whatever sense of self I didn’t have when I was growing up is only slightly overshadowed by something selfish. I take it to class every year because I need to read it every year.

My self-respect tank runs on reserve through the year & for that one week when we do the essay in class, I feel like I have my self-respect firm in my palm. I try to understand how and why a white woman sitting so far away can know and have anything useful to say to a not- white teacher. But I’ve given up trying to reason with it. Those better equipped to deal with the ‘problematics’ of the situation may deal with it. I am more interested in taking the gift and running away with it.

A very Basavanagudi thing happened in Basavanagudi last week. We recently moved into a rented house and our neighbors already hate us. One doesn’t like that we park our car in front of our gate because he wants to park his car there. His caste, kula, gotra I don’t want to get  into, we live in Basavanagudi; you figure. 

One afternoon, my father was rushing to the bank and requested him to move his vehicle because it was blocking ours. The neighbor shrugged and didn’t come out of his house. My father went walking. 

After that, my father made it a point to park our car right at the gate before the neighbor could. Even though he shouldn’t have to, let’s proceed.

The neighbor called the traffic police & complained bitterly to the confused young officer who responded. If the officer was entertained, he couldn’t hide it well:  ‘So you have a problem if they park their car in front of their gate?’ Still, the neighbor persisted. My father lost it and ran screaming at the neighbor. The anger in my father’s voice does the same thing to me today that it has always done: irritate me, get me to think about how unnecessary it is, and bring me to automatic tears. In the past, I’ve seen my father scream so loudly, the red in his eyes don’t leave until the next morning, his face is concretely unmoving, and his temples throb as if struggling to come out. But when he was shouting at the neighbor, I realized it was the only thing he could’ve done. I understood the source of all his anger.

By then, the neighbor had gathered supporters on the strength of his and their births. Some stood on balconies, threads visible, saying to my father: ‘Just because you have a big car doesn’t mean…’ And that’s when I saw it – the source of their anger. The problem may not have been the car after all, it was the size of the car, which was perhaps as big as their bruised pride.

This morning, returning from a walk I saw a couple of policemen pacifying someone very much like the neighbor. He kept pointing at a few discarded flowers on the footpath. An hour ago when I’d walked the same way, I’d seen flower vendors sitting on the footpath under the shade of a large tree. The flower vendors were nowhere to be seen now. A man came running to them and said, “Saar, look at all this dirt, that too in front of a Brahmin house.”

What I’ve learnt from this tragicomical angst towards outsiders/’polluters’ in Basavanagudi is that the centre is not holding.

I am thinking of Gogu Shyamala’s ‘But Why Shouldn’t the Baindla Woman Ask for Her Land?’, where Saayamma bangs her fists, makes a fuss, and pushes the village heads with an iron grit and won’t leave until she takes back what belongs to her. I am thinking how much indignity there is in asking for things that you shouldn’t have to ask for (because they are yours to begin with).

I am thinking how those who make you ask for these things not only get to keep their dignity but yours as well. I am thinking of how the consequence of not making a fuss is different for different people. I am thinking of how every other passerby who heard my father roaring on the street would’ve called him an uncouth wild man. I am thinking of a Bahujan writer on a zoom panel I once attended. She was accused of not having got the question right and wouldn’t let go until both the moderator and the other speaker had apologized.  These people who took back what was theirs, took it despite the consequences – they were not wild; they weren’t even angry; they were just holding on to their self-respect.

I am led back to the quietness of Didion’s words and wonder whether it is enough to sneak my self-respect out from wherever it is hiding, and- whether it’ll do. It will do. Didion says, “​​To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect” — which to me means that some of our routes to self-respect aren’t going to be dignified and are certainly not going to be quiet. The route is what often gets us called mad and difficult. But it’s what will eventually free us from the Savarna expectation that we will keep eating kadlepuri while they hack at our self-respect.

No Ship Will Come

So I directed a play. Never thought I’d ever write a sentence like that in my life. But it happened and it was fun. The rehearsals were the best part. My students are too damn cool and I wish I had half their willingness and dil to do new things when I was young :/

The play is an adaptation of No Ship will Come written by Nis-Momme Stockmann. What began as a rehearsed reading soon became a play by itself and I have absolutely no idea how that happened. I am now itching to perform on stage myself. You can watch the play here. It can be watched on Vimeo till August 27, 2021. Please watch off 🙂

Best Vada Pav

December 2017, Navi Peth, Pune.

It was a small shop at the edge of the road where traffic met from 4 different directions and halted before the signal. Inside, three tables and four chairs around each. Dignified, playfully round, just-fried yellow batata vadas gleamed from inside the glass counters while pavs sat smiling on top. A stack of newspaper cuttings were holed into a pin-stand on the wall. I was standing outside to get an auto to take me to Savitribai Phule University.

Decided against it and went in after I heard the vadas sizzling cozily inside the tava they were swimming in. Ordered two vada pavs – one for now , one for later. Sat waiting at one of the tables and watched men in office clothes reading the newspaper hurriedly and slowing down only to eat vada pav.

I bit into mine as soon as it came. Hot. Steam escaped from the gaps of my teeth and I let out an oval howl. Pushed the vada around the walls of my mouth so they wouldn’t linger on the tongue for very long. I imagined my vada as a Victorian lady holding the edges of her skirt, face wrinkled, eyes shut, trying to cross a puddle.

Pav soothed the burns but only until I bit into the chili which gave me a renewed sense of mouth. I finished the rest of vadapav carefully, biting enough of both to sustain heat and burns in equal measure. But the thing with a vadapav is, no matter how careful you are, it will do whatever it wants to in your mouth. On top of everything, with a chili in hand, one can never sit still. Even half-eaten, you can neither keep holding it or throw it. Eventually it will make a home in your mouth and you must learn to shut up and let it.

I took the other vadapav and put it in my bag. Lunch sorted, I thought. Ten minutes later, outside Savitribai Phule University in the auto, I took it out of my bag and ate it the same way I ate its twin.

It was a happy day.

Under the Trumpet tree

This story was written for Dhruv Sehgal’s Table for One series. I wrote it one early morning in September last year after I’d spent weeks editing, vomiting, and pulling hair out with several other drafts. It’s a story that is very old — I’ve repeated it to anyone who’ll listen so part of the challenge was to write as if I was hearing it for the first time myself. As much as I hate to admit how hairless this made me, I like that the story flowed out as if it knew what it had to do. It was smoother than the flow of my vagina monologues. No story has left my body with this much ease since. Thank you, Dhruv.

It was 4:45 am. The houses in Basavanagudi were all asleep. Some had only just gone to sleep. The call center returnees walked into their homes, sleepily closing gates. In their half-dream-half awake state, the gates were often left unlatched, and lights on. Some other houses, like mine, were dreaming. The house next to mine was wide awake though. Yellow light had filled its windows to the brim and the front yard was already wet and smelling of earth. The old woman woke before the sun every morning, had a cold water bath with her saree on, fought the cold using just her fists (clasped tightly), walked to the gate like a soldier, and drew rangoli. Today it was 4 dots on 4 lines. Each dot made a hula hoop around itself and ran over other dots.

She lived with an angry son who howled like a wolf and wept like a baby if his mother was too ill to wake early and have a cold water bath on some days. Her wrinkly old feet could barely carry her but she did this every morning without fail. In the beginning, it was because her son demanded, and now it was because her body did.

She waited patiently by the gate for the milk man to arrive. He came at 5 every morning in a squeaky cycle that nevertheless sailed on the streets. He left milk packets inside the gate of each house on the street, except the old woman’s. One morning, after reading a forward on his WhatsApp group ‘B’gudi B’mins’, the son called the milkman and told him they won’t need milk anymore. The old woman froze. He told her because she was a Madi, she should now also refrain from luxuries like coffee.

Her last cup of coffee was two weeks ago. She had dreamt of it for nights after that, mouth barren, throat itchy, and hands balled up into two angry fists for two weeks, she had walked around the house, spitting acid fire at walls. The son had his extra strong coffee at a Darshini before and after office so he was set. That first cup of morning coffee was the only time in the day where time was hers, she was hers. An unspoken rule in these houses was that no matter how urgent it is, you don’t disturb someone when they have their coffee. Her nose tortured her for two weeks, it collected decoction smells from surrounding houses and brought them to her. She tried to take deep breaths to ingest as much smell as possible so that for days she smelled like coffee and the son sniffed around her like a Rottweiler before leaving for office. She sat by the front door and imagined a cup of filter coffee in her hands. She missed its warmth on her fingertips and the warmth it sent down her throat. She missed the little bubbles that popped on her tongue with every sip.

And so today, she stood by the gate with swollen fists, waiting for the milkman because, today, she had a plan.

The milkman left our packet inside the black letterbox where letters never came. My parents had built this house from the memory of hunger in their empty childhood. The letterbox was something they had seen outside big houses so they got one made too. But it soon became clear to us that letterboxes are for everything but letters. To begin with, only bills fell there. Father kept grains for the birds there, Mother kept used plastic covers there, and the milk man left milk packets there.

The old woman waited for the milkman like a cat does before leaping. In the dimness of the still young sky, the pink trumpet tree above her grew bigger and darker. It stood mutely as the milkman came, left the packets inside our letter box and left. When he had done the same at the last house on the street, she moved quickly. She opened her gate, then ours, thrust her hand inside the letterbox, grabbed one milk packet and hurried out, latching the gate carefully and soundlessly.

Now she had work to do. She had to get the milk to boil soon, make coffee, hold the smell in her fists, stop it from leaking into her own house, and stop it from entering her son’s nose. In between all the hurry and the quickness, she also had to find a moment and pause it so the rest of the world could stop for just one second while she enjoyed her coffee. No matter what she did, the smell was going to leak. The least she could do was hide it, so she waited for all the houses on the street to wake up and make coffee. When smells from other houses reached hers, her secret could hide in them.

The son usually woke at this hour and spent an hour in the bathroom so she got the milk to boil in 4 minutes and carried it in a small cup to the terrace. Behind a pot of Tulsi, she had left the coffee filter to stand alone and percolate. A thick ring of coffee smell had gathered around the pot and she couldn’t help but smile.

She poured a little decoction into the cup and emptied the mixture back into the filter, increasing the distance with every transfer so that the smell settled in her head. The cup was now floating under a film of bubbles. This, finally, was her moment. It became a pause when her fists released themselves into palms, and she carried them to the edge of the terrace where she took her first sip and watched the sun come up. Someone was trying to kick start his Honda Activa, the garbage truck was slowing down over a hump, and the pink trumpet tree was now its pinkest.

Something had been won. The following couple of sips sent roots of warmth across her body so that her still wet sari wasn’t cold anymore. She smiled.

She did this again the next day, and the next. Her son didn’t notice. But my father did. He saw her running out of our gate with a milk packet one morning, and he told my mother that it wasn’t the milkman who was cheating us, it had been the old woman all along. The next morning, he woke early and stood by the front window, waiting. When she took the milk packet, he was quick to open the door. The old woman turned behind and saw him. My father, thinking he had delivered his ‘Aha’ moment was satisfied that she had been caught red-handed. But as it turned out, pause was more important to her than dignity, palms more than fists, so she hitched her wet sari in one hand, held the milk packet fiercely with the other and bolted out amidst my father’s screams of kalli kalli kalli.

My father was in a fix. He went back inside empty-handed, scratching his head. My mother told him later that day to just tell the milkman to bring us an extra packet. ‘Let it go. Why would that Ajji steal if it wasn’t important? Maybe she really needs it.’ But my father couldn’t let go. He had to get to the bottom of this. He didn’t have to wait long though.

One morning, the old woman stood at the compound under the trumpet tree and watched as my brother washed his two-wheeler. She had seen something that made her pause. His shirt was crumpled into a ball by the gate and he was only wearing pajama bottoms, bobbing his head to the music in his earphones. She stood there for a long time looking for something on his shoulder to appear, like thunder after lightning. When he turned around, she asked him why he wasn’t wearing this thread. He removed his earphones and apologized. ‘What thread?’ he asked.

The next morning onwards, our milk packets were left alone. In a language that people don’t speak anymore, there is an old saying. Milk has no caste, but milk packets do.

Rachel Cusk: how to proceed?

One morning last week.

Day had barely begun and I’d already surrendered to shame remixing in my head. Tried to get rid of it and took myself out for a walk and listened to this conversation between writers Rachel Cusk and Kjersti Skomsvold. Have been drinking Cusk’s sentences because they go in that smoothly. Kjersti Skomsvold herself is another bomb writer. Sample this delicious excerpt from her book ‘Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am’

‘Live life. Seize the day. I’m standing next to my bed, but I don’t know how to seize my day. Finally I decide to do what I always do: read obituaries. But first I head for the bathroom. Epsilon is a short man, so I don’t know why the bathroom mirror is hung so high. Epsilon says he is happy with it because he just needs to see where to part his hair.’

Three bits from the interview that I wanted to bring here – there’s apparently such a thing as writing without feeling like a writer and I am very curious to know why it made me smile. Towards the end of her trilogy, Cusk thanks ‘the people who treated me like a writer until I finally became one’. And I think that’s such a lovely thing to remember at a point when you are already writing and published. Gahhhhh. Skomsvold asks her about her reading life and Cusk very simply says that she uses reading to directly help herself. It sounded so light and easy when she said it. On some mornings I really do need to challenge the uselessness of my mind with honesty like that.

  1. ‘What compromises women,’ Cusk says, ‘babies, domesticity, mediocrity – compromises writing even more.’
  2. It’s ok if I can’t write 500 words every morning. If there’s something happening in my mind, I just want to bring it out. I want to perform the writing well enough.
  3. Arriving at truths while writing are more powerful than already knowing them beforehand.

***

Annalise Keating

Annalise Keating is a lesson in how not to apologize for wanting power and definitely not for having it. It’s easy to want to tear people down like her, especially when they’ve built their lives from scratch and must keep doing it over and over not because they fall so many times but because they are made to. History has shown no dearth of weak people who can’t stand watching someone of not the right color, caste, or face standing up there. And this is why Keating is such a reward to watch no matter how many times she falls, lies, fails, weeps, and picks herself up. In the end, she still stands.

There are many things about binge-watching a TV show that I am wary about. To begin with, I am uneasy with who I become: who knowingly puts her days on hold and acts as if she’s been given an extra life from watching an ad on candy crush. It doesn’t help that when I’m on a Netflix spree, I am also imagining how great my life is going to be after I finish the damn show. How I will make time at the end of every day, no matter how unwilling I am, how sleepy, to sit in front of the mirror and braid my hair, lotion my hands, put the phone away and read a book. It’s amusing no? That the people we spend days and weeks watching, listening, and soaking in aren’t on their phones and computers all the time?

While I continue to thrive on borrowed life and act as if I can return to the main one any minute I want, I don’t want to leave Annalise. So once the show is over, instead of moping around wondering what happened to her, I take her with me.

Why, I wonder, do I warrant such attention? What do I represent that is such a threat? ~Assata Shakur

I love Annalise Keating for many things. I like that she isn’t honest or likable. It’s reassuring to watch a black woman on screen who doesn’t take her suffering and turn it into kindness. She lets the suffering eat into her and remain in her body where it becomes anger, grows into bitterness, freezing her in despair. She spits fire when threatened, laughs thunder when she wants to, burns you with ice-cold logic when you attack her. She shows us parts of her she coerces into being liked by others, as well as parts she couldn’t and later wouldn’t. A term often used to describe the experience of watching women like her is ‘raw’ –but a better word would be surviving, I guess. The same word she uses to describe herself in the end.

I wonder what it’s like to have that kind of vision to imagine a life where you will not allow the color of your skin, the smell of your caste to determine how you will be seen by the world; and the grit to go and get it. She won’t be a hero. She isn’t interested in the medals of honor you want to garland her with for her victories, it’s perhaps why she doesn’t pine for people when she is in pain either. You like putting her on pedestals, your problem. She didn’t ask you to do that. She was just working. I’ve been thinking a lot about work and what it means to be disliked at the workplace. I’ve often been witness to watching the most hard working people be loathed by those who don’t work half as much. It’s not easy to love Annalise Keating, says Eve at her funeral. But it’s what made her the strong, stubborn, badass lawyer she worked hard to be.

In the entire series, the only time we see Annalise talking to herself is in the final episode, where she wonders what to wear for the last day of her trial, the day of the verdict. She must choose between wearing something that can make it easier for the jury to declare her not guilty or something that will say ‘if you need my clothes and hair to prove my innocence, then fuck you.’ It was a revelation to hear her speak to herself. As it was to watch her mother, Ophelia keep the Anna Mae Harkness in Annalise alive. Ophelia on her own is a whole other show.

In court, Annalise is often told not to use the ‘race card’ and I think about how there is a deliberate yet subtle inattention to the fact of her as a black woman lawyer in her imagination of herself. In the beginning, there is something supremely regular and ordinary about the way she goes about her life. She shows you what it’s like to not have race hovering over you at all times, even though there is no escape from it. How people can have the potential to blossom despite the threat of it always holding them back. Eventually the inattention is avenged- they hunt her down and make her pay for it. But still, she rises.

The one card that we should be using is the card we don’t often want to use even if we aren’t left with any other cards. I don’t know if it’s because we want you to see that the card is actually for you, not us. Or because we know we are still of value without race/caste unlike you who will fall like a sack of onions without yours. And that’s how Annalise wins her fight. She throws your card in your face and becomes Anna Mae Harkness.