We is

As part of the Study of US Institutes (SUSI), teachers from 17 countries were invited to Seattle University to learn more about contemporary American literature. This happened over six weeks, two of which were spent on study tours in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. In DC, we were introduced to a poet and a musician and here’s a little something about the evening spent with them.

Samuel Miranda and Pepe Gonzalez are full of love. One Friday evening in DC, we walked with them into American Poetry Museum. It was a small, bright room with books, and art work all around. On a table by the entrance there was an old typewriter sitting quietly.

I didn’t know much about Sam and Pepe except that they both had the kindest smiles. Earlier that evening when they had introduced themselves to us so happily, you could tell they were the kind of people around whom it’d be difficult to remain unhappy, bored or tired. Exactly the kind of people the world needs more and more, especially today.

Sam read out poems from his book ‘We is’ while Pepe played the double bass. It was my first time seeing–listening to poetry being accompanied by music or was it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. Because on stage his poem held hands with his music and I couldn’t tell what was feeding what but it grew together.

Sam asked, ‘How many of you have known and lost students to bullets?’ and some of us raised our hands. I felt a chill. I didn’t have to look around to know that enough of us had lost students to guns. He read out a poem called Traffic Light Shoot-Out.

“The bicycle’s hooded rider
was a stranger. A body. A corpse.
A corpse I knew
when it still had breath”

Sam read his poems with an intensity and calm that closed old wounds and opened new ones. Pepe smiled with his eyes. I have never seen a musician make so much eye contact with his smile. There was something oddly calm and powerful happening in the room. Most of us couldn’t hold back our tears, some wept openly, some swallowed painfully, some watched Prof C crying and broke down. I withdrew deeper into the folds of my dress and felt smaller than I ever have.

“We is not the singular
dotted i, black figure against
white background.

… We is the traffic
rushing past the living
and the dead
forgetting to write our songs down
breathe into Chinese medicine bottles
so we can heal the wounds
of our entrances and exits…”

When the stage was open for us, I didn’t move. I have never been one to volunteer to do anything. But something in me had moved enough to want to share with them all my grandmother’s mad stories, and the stories of the women I have known and loved. And so I did. I told them about Mouma’s magic blouse, about the woman who challenged power by refusing to cut her hair, about how she hired people to stand on top of stools to pour water down her long, long, hair. And about the woman who rubbed wild flowers on her body early in the morning so she could hide the smell that disgusted those who refused to give her tea.

When we reached the end, evening had become night and we had been vulnerable with each other in the way only citizens whose countries are vicious can be. We had exchanged fears, stories, and histories and as we hugged each other — I wondered if the power-mongers lurking on the outside of poetry in their country, and mine would continue to be so hateful if they knew how much love there was inside. But maybe I was being too ambitious.

I let myself be dissolved in the moment and hugged them all openly.

This morning, I thought of that moment and was suddenly reminded of love – once again – of how much love we are capable of and how often we forget to remind ourselves of this.

I love you, Katherine Hepburn

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Day one of Kate/Duplikate: Summertime

To watch Katherine Hepburn in Summertime (1955)  is to have a dream-undream realised.  There is the simple pleasure of watching her arrive in Venice – alone (unless you count her camera-companion), in love with the idea of being on her own, and worrying that she won’t like the city.

Sitting next to a man on the train, she asks him, even if her attention at this point is really on the city unfurling outside the window –‘Do you think I will like Venice?’

She follows the porter carrying her luggage out of the railway station with the briskness of a free woman chasing her dreams, with the stubbornness of Rani in Queen who wouldn’t let go of her bag.

She is not going to let anybody ruin this for her, not even herself. Even so, despite the joy she brings to her face, and ours – when she swallows the city with her eyes, she is also sincerely vulnerable in the way we are when we find ourselves companion-less in strange cities. No matter how much we have longed to be there, how much we have fought to finally be on our own, sometimes the silence of empty chairs next to us is too loud.

When I was 25, I took myself to Goa – alone. It was better than I thought it’d be. I was happy: I ate, I drank, I read and wrote, I watched Magadheera in Hindi on Sony Max. Everything was great – except on the last day at lunch, when the only other occupied table next to mine, paid their bill and left – I felt so abandoned that I began to cry.

I couldn’t understand it. They were total strangers and I was perfectly alright the next moment and before it but I still blame them for leaving me alone when I was still only half- done with my prawns.

I should have known then that Katherine Hepburn had a solution. Hepburn’s Jane Hudson deals with the silence of an empty chair as if it were not an empty chair – but an ‘extra’ chair. She puts it to sleep by making it lean on the table uselessly. This may have been done out of desperation to not feel alone, yes. Still, what we see is a woman fiercely straddling between alone-ness and companionship – not knowing how to ask for either.

One particularly lonely afternoon, she finds the courage to ask a young married couple if she could join them for drinks – the man declines. She’s heartbroken but takes herself out to lunch where she sees this couple strolling with another couple. At this point, she puts the ‘extra’ chair next to her asleep.

When the man who has been waiting to woo her shows up, she is happy but he sees the sleeping chair, thinks maybe she wants to be left alone, and excuses himself. Hepburn’s hand reaches out to stop him but it’s too late. She can’t reach him and neither can her hand. When she breaks down, we are humiliated on her behalf. But we don’t know if she is.

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Two is good number, she says somewhere else in the film. But when she becomes two, she just wants to be one again.

Why? Because despite it all, and despite herself – she is the first to say ‘I love you’ to him, after resisting-letting go-resisting his kisses. She doesn’t know what she wants, which is perhaps the one thing that independent women are wholeheartedly compassionate about. We root for her when she’s in love, we root for her when she doesn’t want to be in love and we root/hoot for her when love pushes her into a canal.

It is charming to watch Hepburn resist love. She does it unwillingly and we watch it willingly. She tells the man a story from her past – the only story he and we know so far. And it takes us a while to realise that we actually know nothing about her – except that she’s from Ohio and that she’s a ‘fancy secretary’.

The only other story we are allowed is that she always wanted to wear gardenias. Later in the film, she gets a gardenia if only for a while before it falls into the canal, and when he rushes down to catch it – it is obviously out of reach, just like he was a few scenes ago. I was left wondering and then knowing that had she gone after the gardenia instead of he – she would have got it.

But that perhaps is the beauty of finding and not keeping the romance that one stumbles upon in strange cities. This idea of them being just as out-of-reach as you are. Jane Hudson never gets to keep the gardenias that men buy for her. Either they are too late or she loses them and they become unreachable. The only things that remain hers are the things that she buys – shoes, a dress, a glass, a somewhat sisterly affection for a small boy (not bought but given)

In the middle of a passionate kiss with the man, I worry that she will drop her shoe (which she is holding in her hand) The shoe is frighteningly close to the balcony and just when the kiss climaxes, it falls gently inside the balcony. I needn’t have worried. It was a shoe – not gardenia. She bought it with love while in love. It is hers to keep.

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She loves looking at birds that fly over the buildings in the city. She likes to see the bells ringing, she won’t just be having the sounds, no thank you. She will see them. She will carry cigarettes but won’t smoke them, she will down a glass of bourbon mixed with something else. She will cry when she wants to. She will ask for company when she wants to.

There is something spectacularly ordinary about Hudson when she tells the man why she’s leaving.

All my life I’ve stayed at parties too long because I don’t know when to go. Now with you, I’ve grown up, I think I know when to.

I know that in the years to come, I will come back to this moment again and again because it’s the most extraordinary lesson you can learn on your own. No one can teach you and we get to witness this as she learns to recognize it.

Twelve years later, Joan Didion will say something similar about New York in this essay. 

***

I was grateful that he comes to say bye to her (despite her request) — when she’s leaving – leaving forever – on the train. I was grateful if only because she was expecting him. I was even more grateful when their hands never meet.

And again, the final gardenia that he brings for her –  she cannot touch, because it is still, after all this time out of reach. But that’s alright – I write this bearing in mind that all the things she bought in Venice are neatly packed in her many blue suitcases.

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Foot in Tree

Last night I dreamt that I poured a glass of beer on my left foot – the nasty foot that broke last year. It was beer because it was the color of heavy brown that would later swim in my stomach in big laps. I poured it and watched as a line of big bubbles erupted from the knee all the way down to my ankle. The bubbles squeezed uncomfortably next to each other. Friends next to me burst it with something sharp and the bubbles heaved and extinguished but regrew with more force and vigour. Now they were a garden, they had life and they bloomed fiercely, with flora and fauna.

I had a tree growing out of my foot. I walked with it.

It is morning now and I am still walking with its memory. I don’t know which is worse.

Because of Joan Didion

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I mentioned Joan Didion for the first time in Seattle today. I must have said her name in my mind plenty of times but for the first time today, in Seattle (I cannot say this enough) I said her name out loud to my roommate.

My roommate is from Lebanon. Her name is Maha. She took a blue post it from her purse and wrote Joan Didion’s name down in small letters:

J-o-a-n  D-i-d-i-o-n

and I felt the quiet smile I always feel when I see Didion’s name in print.

At the visa interview in Chennai, when the white man behind the glass door had asked me what my SOP was about, I had said Joan Didion. And when he asked me who she was, I had felt incredibly stupid saying ‘She is an American writer’

***

Maha and I were saying how excited we are that they are going to take us on a study tour to Washington DC at the end of this month. I told her, ‘It’d would be tragic to be so close to New York and still not see it’

Ah! New York! You want to see because of Friends?

Yaaa, I said and then with a calm that took even me by surprise I said, ‘Because of Joan Didion’

It will always be Joan Didion’s New York for me now. In the way that it will always be Parodevi’s Bombay, and Adichie’s Nigeria. Cities are built to keep women away. Women may never belong to a city in the way that men do but cities always only belong to women.

Esra, who is from Turkey and now a student here like me, said that Orhan Pamuk is a psycho and we both giggled like children. She said – “Back home we don’t like his writing in Turkish very much. If we want to make fun of someone, we say you are talking like Pamuk writes”

Then she told me that he once put his phone on the balcony and took pictures of the city. “Same time each day and he saw different things it seems – such a crazy that man”

And now it is Esra’s Turkey. Like it is Elif Batuman’s Turkey (but it will never be Pamuk’s)

***

Here I must add because after years of not knowing, and then knowing, I am not going to suddenly unknow who I am – How do Dalit men and women figure here? Can cities ever belong to us? I don’t know. Maybe other cities can belong to us – perhaps even more than ours ever will. Then again – not all of us can afford to walk into strange, new cities and make them ours. But because of some odd luck that I am here now – I want to try.

Seattle is empty without my Basavanagudi cows and their dung, without the trees and their rains. But it is still mine. Today I woke at 5:30 and made it mine. I made it mine as I made hot water and drank it from a red mug. I made it mine as I walked on the same street up and down, effortlessly avoiding Starbucks. I made it mine when I was so distracted by the houses, I missed a turn. I made it mine when I saw a huge Ferrari showroom, said bah, and took a picture. I made it mine when I walked into Ba Bar last night and ordered Garlic Crab Noodles with a glass of wine.

I sat by the bar eating my food, drinking my drink and watched as the young bartender in front of me (grey dress with a slit down the side) climbed up the ladder in her black Nike shoes, and gently picked a bottle of scotch. I watched as she smoothly came down, her right hand clutching the bottle, her left holding-not holding the ladder.

This city is hers more than mine. But because she is now locked forever in a moment that I am writing about and because the next time I eat crab noodles, I’ll be in Bangalore, I will think about how she brought the bottle of scotch down and just like that – the city will be mine again. I sat today and put all my things in this city, so it is not empty anymore. That’s why I am sitting here writing this at 3 in the morning. It could be jet lag also, but lol.

 

 

Notes on May

  1. The evening birds never come to drink water, the morning birds do. The evening birds are always flying, towards home perhaps? And they fly quietly, like they have time.
  2. The koyal near my house sings sweetly but it doesn’t take very long for it to get aggressive. It begins mostly at 5 am and does it continuously. I have a feeling that it knows I am writing this.
  3. One evening at Glen’s, it rained like it does in May in Bangalore – moodily, heavily, nicely, laughingly, groaningly. I sat and watched it feeling dizzily happy and not realising that my helmet which was left hanging by the seat was slowly getting filled with rain. When I saw it, a big laugh came out and then I said, ‘Why do you do this, Vjjjj?’
  4. Reading Natalia Ginzburg is a gift. I unwrapped it slowly one evening and wept bitterly. Her essay ‘My Vocation’ made me tell myself that I am ok, it’s ok, everything is ok, as long as I just keep writing.
  5. I want to write like Alice Munro and Deborah Levy and Natalia Ginzburg. They wake me up in beautiful ways.
  6. Chai immediately after coffee is heavy, curdling.
  7. Having female students in my life is very important. Without them, teaching doesn’t make sense.
  8. Cold water bath after 12 suryanamaskars is slicing, gasping, happy.
  9. I like avocados and eggs.
  10. The sun falls beautifully on some days. Last evening it fell like a disturbed egg yolk. It broke and then the orange oozed out in various places, places it wasn’t even setting in. I was puzzled by this and went looking for the setting sun in the west, couldn’t find it. But its colors were beautifully soaking in the east. I like that this is possible.
  11. After days of being terrified of writing, of running away from the humiliation of my own words at 6 in the morning, of wanting to erase all the words I have ever used in excess – in emails, in articles, in texts, on twitter, on instagram – I scrolled down my old posts on FB and discovered that through the good days and bad – even though I have always told myself I suck at this – I have always still written. For now, that’s enough.
  12. Dorothy Parker said ‘I hate writing. I love having written’ This is the month where I realise that I like eating. I don’t like having eaten. 
  13. I don’t trust the words I use with people anymore. They are too much.
  14. I want to watch a Simone De Beauvoir and Sartre film. She lived. She really did. I want to do it too.
  15. Elaichi shrikhand is back in my life.

 

A case for Podcasts and Rom-coms

This semester was odd but gratifying. I was just back from a surgery – so every step I took on campus was measured, aware, and keen on changing history – or at least understanding it. Would I not have broken my ankle if my fuckall big bum hadn’t landed on it? If it hadn’t rained, would I have slipped that badly? Was this a conspiracy? Were aliens involved?

Even so, it took me months before I returned to the accident site for revenge. Standing a good few feet away, I watched the spot achingly. Some mild time-travel type exercises later, I concluded that I should have just taken the bloody lift that evening.

When I wasn’t busy avoiding those stairs, I was worried that I’d now have to sit like a normal human being at the desk – with my feet firmly on the ground and not in some weirdass asana on the chair. Of all the things I thought I’d miss the most about my pre-surgery days, I never thought it’d be my sitting style. But it’s true. I cannot sit that way without worrying about a slicing steel-type pain in my ankle anymore.

***

Some lazy reading happened across the semester. I fought with people on Twitter – all of them Savarna, most of them women. Felt murderous rage at various points, kicked myself when I wanted to be unkind – was unkind anyway, told myself to shut up a lot. Needed urgent lessons in humility which only some time-off could have taught me.

Offline, I faltered often – feeling drowned by deadlines so I made to-do lists in at least 3 different notebooks, and then on my phone, and some post-its. All reminding me to do things that weren’t reading and writing. I mostly remember January as the month where I was straddling in between attacking and being attacked. Wrote 3 pieces.

Like every year, February was swallowed – didn’t write anything except a lot of Meta-related emails, and announcements. Lost 3 kilos – which didn’t show anywhere- fucking nonsense. Felt like it was the best Meta – loved working with students, loved walking back to the department with them, and watching the moon from the bathroom window, loved returning home tired and collapsing on the bed, loved waking up to a hundred odd things already gone wrong overnight, loved fixing, loved freaking out — mind mostly calm – not pissed and angry like last year, which might have been the most disappointing Meta to say the least.

Did some dabba translation for a piece that I was going to read out on the last day of Meta. Had a lot of fun writing and reading it out in Kannada – slowly discovering that English and Konkani are not languages for the ridiculous and what are my family stories if not ridiculous?

Got some new writing gigs – all of which had to be pushed until college work was over – stressed at various points. The mounting deadlines – writing and otherwise led to a couple of small outbursts – which I did not manage very well – learnt to remain calm by eating.

In the middle of  Feb madness, I stole a day to go to BIFFES – caught 5 movies – loved all 5 – took the metro back home, noticed a young man who refused to go to the men’s side and stood sadly adamant in the women’s – wondered if it was because he felt safer here than there.

Reading Kancha Ilaiah was slow – took time but learnt a lot of things about writing. One evening, after finishing the book, I realized that all writing comes from a place of humility – not expertise. It was a rewarding evening.

Woke up early the next couple of mornings to finish writing Ilaiah piece– moved to Yashica Dutt’s memoir. Reading may have been quicker but writing the review for this one took longer – realised that it’s probably because with Ilaiah – I was already writing in my mind while reading the book.

Spent the last week of April finishing the Dutt memoir review and running around for passport renewal. I might be going to the US for a one-month scholarship study on Contemporary American Literature (more on this when I finally believe it is happening)

Proceeded unwillingly to do valuation work. Felt delirious joy when I finished. Want to now devour the rest of May with a lot of books and some early muscle-flexing for writing fiction. Currently reading Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? which is dangerously close to home. When I can’t write – I listen to podcasts on writing – and end up finding some outrageously good ones:

  1. Adichie, when her parents wanted her to be a psychiatrist – considered it seriously – and decided that if she ever became one, she’d use all her patients’ stories to write fiction (grinnn!)
  2. Anne LaMott on coming out of alcohol addiction, and returning to writing (“I was full of holes”)
  3. The Cut -Women discuss Ferrante – a few really good moments, only small annoying bits — It is severely painful when white people seem to know more about caste. Even so, the podcast ends on a funny note – best moment is when someone says “Ferrante comes from ‘ferrous’ meaning iron which is funny because women have an iron-deficiency. Basically we are all anemic readers getting their Ferrante supplement”)
  4. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls– Refreshing to listen to an 8-year-old girl interviewing Lowri Morgan, a television presenter and marathon runner. Loved the questions which also include the only question I ever want to ask runners (Do you listen to music when you run?) Favourite line: “Running makes me happy. But what makes me happier is when I get to the ultimate limit of my endurance, I realise that my limits don’t break – they bend and then, I start to enjoy the experience and I start to revel in the challenge that faces me”
  5. The Writing Bull Podcast – favourite so far. (“One thing you don’t want to be thinking about while writing fiction is…anything else. You don’t want to be thinking about anything else”)

I love listening to podcasts. I do them every morning when I go about making breakfast and tea for myself. Listening to a podcast is a lot like flying a kite, you can get used to it easily while your mind wanders to other things but you have to keep pulling the kite back to see where it is – and more importantly – to see where you are.

***

When it rained like the world was ending one afternoon, the doormat was wet and took 2 days to recover. I was happy because I didn’t have to wash it and when it finally dried, it was warmly hot, and I liked standing on it.

***

In the department one afternoon, I longed to be in Seattle already so I watched half of Sleepless in Seattle and remembered the days when I had a huge crush on Meg Ryan.

***

Spent much of mid-April nursing a solid crush on The Avengers – watched all the MCU films. Loved Thor Ragnarok. Finally understood what people see in both the Chrises. They are both extremely cute human beings no? Pleased to say that I really liked watching Chris Evans and to salvage the big love I suddenly had for him – proceeded to watch 2 of his films on Netflix – Playing it Cool and Before We Go.

Chris Evans is forever running after people who drop things accidentally or deliberately. And for no reason at all, I am now making the case that all MCU films are Romcoms.

***

Learning to take great pleasure in making my own breakfast. Understood why Avocados are expensive – what a brilliant thing to eat in the morning. Damn it.

***

~ Pinching anxieties – becoming old and helpless, never being able to live on my own, growing distance between parents and me over marriage-nonsense.

~~ Words to live by – AM once told me “Avarna people can never have real friendships” – I am beginning to accept this. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be, but I am learning to give what I can, and take what I get.

 

Ordinary

***GoT Spoiler alert***

Sometimes ordinary people do extraordinary things. And even if the ordinary people have surprised us before, we tell ourselves not to expect great things from them because the stupid world trains us only to imagine extraordinary things, not believe them. Either way, Arya Stark reminded us yesterday that if you only keep doing the things that people expect you to do, you’ll never become what you are actually capable of. And what you are actually capable of is so much more than what anybody can ever understand.

Fuck man, Arya Stark. What a woman you are.

Thank you for showing us how to run after things that are above and beyond but still worth a shot, a plunge, a leap.

 

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By SriPriyatham via Imgur

Maisie Williams who plays Arya Stark said she was worried that people were going to hate that scene because they’d think that “Arya didn’t deserve it”

Apparently Maisie’s dumbass boyfriend told her – ‘Mmm, should be Jon though really, shouldn’t it?’

The world is full of fuckers. They’ll have you believe you are good but not good enough to do that. And then we have champions like Arya who will do it quietly and show.  When she did what she did, I heard a thousand rockets being launched up every mofo’s ass who make it their business to tell others what they are capable or not capable of.