Many White Women, One White Man, and Perumal Murugan

Featured Image Credits: Twitter

Featured Image Credits: Twitter

I can recollect the last six years of my life only in semesters. No other measurement makes sense. The last time I did this, I was less obsessed with archiving. Even so, this still remains the only reliable way of dealing with the guilt of not writing about the books I read this semester.

  1. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary – Simon Winchester

Image Credits: publishersweekly.com

Image Credits: publishersweekly.com

I was teaching a paper on linguistics this year and began my semester with this book. Kindle often gives one the impression that the reading is going a lot quicker than it usually does. Even so, the reading was slow – all the note-making definitely helped – as did the time I took to marvel at each history lesson learned. I loved the book because it told me fascinating stories about people who channeled all their energy into pursuits that are barely acknowledged today.

Simon Winchester Image credits: Reluctant Habits

Simon Winchester Image credits: Reluctant Habits

The book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The history of how a bunch of men spent 2 decades and more to produce the world’s first dictionary. Samuel Johnson had actually done it long before them, as did many other people who put together one form of a dictionary or the other. The earliest known was a dictionary of the most difficult words.

I discovered Samuel Johnson’s passion and wrote this little post to show him some love.

2.  Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel

worldliteraturetoday

Image Credits: worldliteraturetoday

I’d read Fun Home last year and still recall the line “If there was ever a bigger pansy than my father, it was Marcel Proust” with many giggles.

Image Credits: Elena Seibert 2016 portrait, Dykes to Watch Out For

Image Credits: Elena Seibert 2016 portrait, Dykes to Watch Out For

Bechdel is funny, mysterious, and obsessed with writing. Anyone who wants a little kick on their bums to get that push to start writing should read this. There are lovely panels featuring Bechdel at work – hands in her head, thinking, revising, editing, collecting material, typing even as she talks to her mother on the phone. Plus many many flashbacks. If there’s one thing I love about flashbacks, it’s watching them. If there’s one thing I love more – it’s reading them in graphic novels.

There is more Woolf in ‘Are You My Mother?’ than there is in ‘To the Lighthouse’. During my post-grad days, I tried reading To the Lighthouse and gave up because it went over my head. Not that I’ve suddenly become smart. But Bechdel took me to Woolf in a way that even the threat of failing M.A couldn’t. So easily, so kindly, so lovingly.

Image Credits: bluemetropolis.org

Image Credits: bluemetropolis.org

3. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

Pinterest

Image Credits: Pinterest

I’m convinced that Virginia Woolf wrote a better testimony to Feminism in ‘To the Lighthouse’ than in ‘A Room of One’s Own’In TTL, Woolf warns us about all the Mr. Ramsays in the world. You and I know Mr. Ramsay very well. He is the man, who, when he walks into a room, any room –  must have immediate attention. Otherwise he will throw tantrums. He has to know what you are doing, what you are thinking, otherwise he will die.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell Image Credits: Estate of Vanessa Bell Henrietta Garnett

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell Image Credits: Estate of Vanessa Bell Henrietta Garnett

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading this helped me deal with the Mr. Ramsays in my life.

4. The Murder Room – PD James

PD James Image Credits: Henry Bemis Books

PD James Image Credits: Henry Bemis Books

Took me several months to finish reading this one but perhaps that was a good thing. I will cherish Tally Clutton and her resolve to live alone. Wrote about this in March.

5. Poonachi – Perumal Murugan

Poonachi

Image Credits: Goodreads

I still worry that I didn’t say yes with my dignity intact when I was asked to be on a panel with Perumal Murugan and Kalyan Raman. My heart shrieked and made a fool of me.

I spent most of March being anxious. I worried because I didn’t know Tamil. I worried because English speaking worlds are all alike – they are always brutal to non-English speaking worlds. I worried because, in this equation, I was part of the English speaking world.

Toto Funds the Arts

 

 

The panel was on Murugan’s Poonachi – a book that made me have feelings for goats.

A big part of the reading experience was compromised because of the panel. There was a sense of structure but for days I worried that I would just embarrass myself or worse, Murugan would hate me. I haven’t been able to write about the panel yet. When I can, I hope it can convey the pain and the love in my heart for Murugan.

6. The Goat Thief – Perumal Murugan

Image Credits: Goodreads

Image Credits: Goodreads

Devoured the stories slowly. Most stories have women doing fab things. My favorite had an angry housewife kicking the husband away from sitting in her favorite chair. She then carries the chair over to the kitchen with an enviable Jejamma style.

Another story had a woman who worries about a persistent smell in the house until eventually one day, she is swallowed by a commode.

But the most memorable story in the book is ‘shit’

Apparently, Murugan wanted to release a bunch of stories with the title Shit Stories but the publishers chickened out. Bastards.

‘Shit’ begins with a bunch of upper caste ‘progressive’ boys who go mad because of a stench in their house. Turns out the drainage pipe behind their house is broken so they call someone for help. The man who shows up, Dalit of course, goes down the septic tank and begins to unclog the shit. Murugan describes every step that the man does under the septic tank, while the reader is slowly taking in the boys’ disgust upon seeing this. After a while, like Manjule’s audience, you too begin to pat your cheek softly because Murugan has slapped it that loudly.

7. Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love – Lara Vapnyar

Image Credits: Medium

Goodreads

Image Credits: Goodreads

You only need to know that there are two old women named Luda and Milena in this book who made me laugh so much, that I cannot wait to be old and funny. I want to grow old with Namsies the way these two do.

Luda and Milena both compete for a man’s affections (boring, overdone, what else is new – ha, yes, but wait for it) They lure him with food even though they detest cooking. Every evening they break their heads over what to cook – all the while thinking sincerely about each other (not the man)

In the end, the man dies.

I’ll leave you with that.

8. Conversations With Friends – Sally Rooney

Amazon UK

Image Credits: Amazon.in

Here’s a book that made me wildly uncomfortable. It showed me the distance between me and how I’d like to write.

It showed me what to do with people who are meant to be characters in books that we always tell ourselves, we will write someday – one day.

In the book, I found the language for daily anxieties that friendships tend to bring, the pleasures that there are, in going over WhatsApp chats from years ago for no particular reason. How we devote entire afternoons lying on the bed, assessing relationships, friendships – looking for proof that really- they don’t love us. In fact, they never liked us, to begin with.

Image Credits: The Irish Times

Image Credits: The Irish Times

How phones play seesaw with our feelings. At one end, you have the deafening silence of laughing double blue ticks that have the quality of a burn. At the other end, you have that fleeting message tone which is sometimes a whistle, a bird song, a dot, a bite, an orgasm. Each having the capacity to make your heart euphoric and erase all self-doubt.

Obviously, we love the things that can show us our shame.

9. The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Image Credits: amazon.in

Image Credits: Amazon.in

Image Credits: The Guardian

Image Credits: The Guardian

I loved Yeong-hye. I loved her miserable husband. I loved her resolve to become vegetarian. I loved her decision to sit in front of the refrigerator one morning and empty it slowly of all its meat. I loved that she made her husband eat tofu for days. I loved her calm. And like her husband, I felt destroyed by it too.

10. Joan Didion

Reading Why I write was reassuring. Even though I am not there yet and perhaps never will be, it’s always gratifying to read a writer’s journey towards writing with a mad passion.

Image Credits: out.com

Image Credits: out.com

I discovered her madness in this article – How Joan Didion became Joan Didion. It’s a BuzzFeed thing which means it is pretty much buzzblah. But can’t complain: It took me to Didion. I don’t know many people who openly declare that they hate Pauline Kael. Even though I love Pauline Kael.

Here is her essay on New York. If you love places, the way they make you feel, how they tend to have more memories than your bodies, then you might like this essay. It’s never really a matter of liking or not liking a city. Didion shows us why.

11. The Idiot – Elif Batuman

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Image Credits: Goodreads

Seline, Batuman’s writer-narrator is a freshman student moving into her dorm room at Harvard when we begin. Her roommate buys a refrigerator and tells her she can use it too but she must buy something for the room, like a poster. She suggests a ‘psychedelic’ poster. Seline can’t find one but finds the next option: A black and white picture of Albert Einstein. She is told to hang it above her desk and soon, several people express grave concern about this. Because you know? Opinions. Yawn.

  • He invented the atomic bomb, abused dogs, neglected his children. You worship him? Shame.
  • Don’t you know he abused his wife? How can you have his poster up on your wall? There are many greater geniuses who aren’t famous at all. Why is that? 

After several days of torture, she sighs, and like all good girls, thinks of Nietzsche:

Maybe it’s because he’s really the best, and even jealous mudslingers can’t hide his star quality. Nietzsche would say that such a great genius is entitled to beat his wife.

Image Credits: REORIENT

Image Credits: REORIENT

That shut everyone up, I assume. But I was rolling on my bed howling with laughter.

Weeks later, when I was done, I could only satisfy the Batuman-shaped hole in my life by watching her YouTube interviews.

This one is particularly funny. Shez a kyuttie.

12. The Possessed – Elif Batuman

Image Credits: Goodreads

Image Credits: Goodreads

Obvi. What else could I read after having my heart raided by Batuman? I raided her back. Hacked into her New Yorker and LRB pieces.

In The Possessed, you see Batuman’s love for learning new languages. She learned Russian and Uzbek, applied for scholarships through her student life and got to live in Russia and Uzbekistan for two months.

In the essays, she tells us fascinating things she discovers. Take this for instance – In the Uzbek language, there are 100 words for ‘crying’ (!!!) There is a word for crying with a hoo-hoo sound, a word for crying after being dumped, for crying out of hunger, etc. I want to learn Uzbek now, especially since I cry 100 times for 100 things.

If you want a live example of how crazy she is – here is a video of Batuman reading an excerpt from her essay The Murder of Leo Tolstoy. You can download it here. 

13. Approaching Eye Level – Vivian Gornick

If I held onto what Feminism had made me see, I’d soon have myself.

– What Feminism means to me, Gornick.

Image Credits: Goodreads

Image Credits: Goodreads

I pored over essays on living alone, feminism, friendships, walking in the city and stopped for a long time after I read ‘Tribute’ – an obituary of a woman she calls Rhoda Munk. I have never heard of Rhoda Munk but the obituary, like all good obituaries, brings her alive. If you google Rhoda Munk, you will discover that even the internet has amnesia. There is not much that is known about her. Some say that Rhoda Munk is a pseudonym for someone else.

Even so, to write about someone that endearingly after they’ve died is to wish you’d known them well when they were alive. Gornick reminisces about the time she was invited to spend a weekend at Rhonda’s summer cottage. Over three days, the women talked, wrote, took long walks by the sea, had long conversations, cooked, read and took care of Rhonda’s many cats. This is what’s rarely possible even in most great marriages. She had that with Rhonda. A friendship with an older, accomplished woman, a writer, a possible mentor.

Image Credits: The Rumpus net

Image Credits: The Rumpus net

After that weekend though, Gornick tastes the bitter truth. She wasn’t special. The ‘honeymoon period’ of their friendship was over, she says.

Many many people begin to join them to live in the cottage. Turns out Rhonda had invited everyone she knew.

Gornick slips into the background and understands that nobody is ever really going to be enough for Rhonda and that’s what makes her Rhonda.

I don’t know Rhonda but I feel like I want to impress her.

 

14. The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan

Image Credits: audiobooks.com

Image Credits: audiobooks.com

Anne Fadiman introduces Marina Keegan as perhaps the only student to have boldly resisted Fadiman’s writing advice. Keegan was in Fadiman’s First-person writing class at Yale.

She resisted my suggestions because she didn’t want to sound like me; she wanted to sound like herself.

I was intrigued. Keegan was barely 20, and had the energy of a dead woman who’s come back alive to write. She had the guts to tell a published writer ki nehi boss, yeh mera style nehi hai. She wrote and rewrote until she was satisfied, which she never was. She was always convinced that she could write better.

In ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Keegan confesses that she doesn’t want to graduate. She wants to keep learning. She worries that it might stop if she goes out into the real world where one has to work to earn.

I wanted to shake her. The woman had already interned at the New Yorker’s fiction department and had received an offer to join them full time after graduation. She was barely 20. I feel like I must keep saying it. Feels like cuts on my wrist. Because what was I doing at 20?

The book is a collection of Keegan’s short-stories and essays. The characters in her stories will walk with you for a long time after you have finished reading. I remember the girl whose boyfriend died. She visits his parents to offer condolences and finds herself in the company of his beautiful ex-girlfriend whom they all love very much. Now she is grieving and jealous. Later, she finds his journal where he has written unflattering things about her.

I remember an old woman who reads to a blind young man twice a week. As soon as she enters his apartment, she takes off all her clothes and begins reading to him –  stark naked. At one point her husband dies and she doesn’t go back to the blind man.

For someone who wrote astonishingly intimate stories about death and loss, it’s crazy that after 5 days of graduating from Yale, Marina Keegan died in an accident. She was barely 20.

In the Picture: Kevin and Tracy Keegan kiss their daughter Marina at her graduation from Yale. Image Credits: ABC News

In the Picture: Kevin and Tracy Keegan kiss their daughter, Marina at her graduation from Yale. Image Credits: ABC News

***

Dear Mr Weiner

**Featured Image Credits: Young Writers Society**

**Featured Image Credits: Young Writers Society**

Dear Mr Weiner

When I think about writers,

I think about you Mr Weiner, from my degree days

you who proudly told everyone –

‘Yoohoo. I am a writer. I write.’

Often you wrote about yourself in third person,

‘But he was different from others. He could write. He could really write and not just string words together.’ (Like I am doing now)

 

When I think about writers, 

I also think about 2 lovely girls

from a class I taught years ago.

How they both hesitated to call themselves writers

even though they wrote like motherfuckers.

So now I want to say to you, Mr Weiner,

‘If at least one inch of your pubic hair can write like those girls, we’ll talk.’

***

**Featured Image Credits: Young Writers Society**

Ram ka kya hoga? Part III of the Dalit Women Speak Out Conference

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Premalata is a 23- year-old MBA graduate from Telangana. I met her on Day Two of the Dalit Women Speak Out conference in Pune, 20 Dec 2017.

When I first saw her, she was angrily untangling the beads from her dupatta. She had just ended a very upsetting phone conversation. She snapped the phone shut and jammed it inside her bag. On the other end of the phone, I had heard a man who was persistently asking her where she was.

Poooonaaa, pooonaaa. Pooongaa alla pa, thooo. Poooonaaaa, she’d screamed. After she noticed me, she smiled apologetically and began straightening the creases on her orange Anarkali salwar-kameez.

–          Appa? I asked, pointing to the phone now recovering in her bag. Father?

–          Illa. Mera Maama – Morning se phone karta. No, my uncle. Has been calling since morning.

This girl was my heroine. She’d refused to give the annoying uncle any bhaav, and now she didn’t want to waste her time talking about him.

She saw my open notebook and asked if I was writing about the conference.

Yes, I tell her but I want to write about her. Is that ok?

She giggled and said, “Main itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” But I’m not a big man.

“Main bhi itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” I’m also not a big man.

She smiled and I was distracted by the calm in her eyes. I didn’t know Telugu and she didn’t know English so in our garbled Hindis we continued to talk.

She said she was fighting with her family because they didn’t want her to work. And that she was seeking an NGO’s help to negotiate with her parents.

When she thought she’d said enough she began interviewing me.

–          Tum kya karta? What do you do?

–          Main English teacher. I teach English.

I thought back to what I knew about Telugu and grudgingly arrived at fair-skinned heroes against shiny backdrops of big temples; and bubbly heroines with flowing hair. But I’m wondering what her version of the language is.

So I asked her the most personal, most important question in my life.

Tum picture dekhta? Do you watch films?

She nodded wildly and her eyes looked like they were swallowing me along with the entire room.

–          Tumko heros main kaun pasand? Who is your favourite hero?

–          Ram, she blinked.

–          Kaunsa Ram? Ram Charan Teja? Which Ram?

Cheeee! Her face tightened up with disgust and my eyes widened with surprise.

–          Toh phir kaunsa Ram? Then which Ram?

–          Ek hain Ram karke. Ready main bahut acha acting kiya woh. Ram has done super acting in the film Ready.

I felt slaughtered. I was desperate but equally dreading her answer to my next question.

–          Mahesh Babu pasand? Do you like Mahesh Babu?

 Cheeeee! She squirmed again.

–          Kyuu? Sabko pasand hai na Mahesh Babu? Why? Everyone loves Mahesh Babu no?

–          Agar sabhi log Mahesh Babu ko pasand karenge, toh Ram ka kya hoga? (I don’t want to translate this sentence. English doesn’t deserve it)

My shame shame -puppy shame evaporated because I had fallen in love with her. I was too unsettled to say anything but her eyes were calmer than ever as she stifled her guffaws behind the beady orange dupatta.

Even before I could ask her the next question, she had answered– “Genelia girls main pasand.” In girls, I like Genelia.

And then she blushed like red balloons.

–          Tum idar kaisa aaya, she asked me. How did you come here?

–          Plane.

–          Akela? Alone?

–          Haan.

–          Tum bahut daaare, she said, giving the English word the lift of a plane taking off. And with a thumbs up in my direction, her eyes drank all of us in again.

Premalata gave me more moments to live in than all the waste Telugu friends from college who gave me nothing more than dabba fair heroes to remember them by.

I think of her occasionally and every time I do, I wonder why I didn’t ask to take her picture. Then I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. You can’t trust cameras for moments like these.

As I left the room after saying bye to her that day, I fished my phone out and began looking for Telugu actor Ram. Google showed me pictures of Ram Charan Teja. I rolled my eyes.

Dalit Women Speak Out – The Writing Workshop

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The Dalit Women’s Conference was liberating on many levels, mostly because I got to meet some fab women. This is a small account of the writing workshop I conducted in some very questionable Hindi on 19 Dec 2017.

The first thing I notice is that all my ten students are older than me. The little Hindi that I know gives haath and I begin stammering. In the second row, there are three middle-aged women who each have the sternness of my high-school history teacher.

The two oldest women in the group – Jamnadevi (62) and Asha (56) sit in the first row. Every time they smile, the liquid in their eyes glimmers in an alert way.

I fumble with words the first few minutes. I forget if Likhna and Lekhan mean the same thing. I’m not sure if I should rely on the same examples I use in the English-speaking classroom.

But what great sense does talking about writing make in an English-speaking classroom that I should worry about it not making sense in a Hindi classroom?

Some are unconvinced when I say that born-talent is bullshit, that writing is practice. I begin to worry that I’m making no sense at this point because a woman from the second row says – ‘Lekin humko technique malum nahi hain na? Toh kaise likhe?’ But we don’t know the technique. How do we write?

I wonder if should mention Marquez here and feel somewhat hopeful.

I tell them how he taught himself to write through the stories his grandmother told him. How she once told him that every Sunday an electrician would come home to fix things and when he left, the house would be filled with butterflies.

But Marquez knew that if he were to write about butterflies coming out of a room – nobody would believe it. So he borrowed his grandmother’s stone face to tell stories. He also added that they will believe him if he said yellow butterflies. His funda was simple – you want to write? Begin with the stories that you know. Regardless of how crazy they may seem.

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The history teachers nod but are still suspicious. Jamnadevi and Asha are bowled over by the yellow butterflies and their smiles are the loudest.

Kisi ek kamre ke bare main likhiye jo aap kabhi bhool nahi payenge. Write about a room that you’ll never forget.

I wait quietly when they begin writing. I imagine what it must be like to touch the greying head tops of Jamnadevi and Asha. It could be hot, it could be cold.

 

When Asha begins to read, everybody looks at her– “Neele asmaan ke rang ki deeware thi us ghar main. Kone main ek bada kutiya rakha hua tha”

That house had sky-blue walls and in the corner of the house there was a big grinding stone.

When she says neele asmaan, the other women around her nod and she picks up.

When she is describing her mother’s hands and how she’d spend hours tracing them with her index finger, she breaks down.

–          Aur nahi pada jata. I cannot read more.

She takes the ends of her white dupatta, removes her glasses and dabs hers eyes with them.

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Jamnadevi who is sitting next to her doesn’t register any of this. She is almost smiling as she begins. She describes the only cot in her house on which, she says – her father taught her ganith (Math) and her mother combed her hair.

There was a small Ponds dabba near the window. We’d try as much as we could to make it last a year and then when it got over, granny would fill it with water so we could have Ponds scent. Even today the smell of Ponds reminds me of my grandmother very much.

I stood there beaming like a useless buffoon. All these women were better storytellers than I could ever hope to be. Every single person. I didn’t really have to do anything. Whether or not I did a good job, we had all agreed vehemently that we could not allow anybody else to tell our stories. Our stories are ours.

When Jamnadevi finished reading, she too breaks down.

The two girls sitting behind her tell me they don’t want to read their stories out because they don’t think it’s as good as Jamnadevi’s.

At this Jamnadevi giggles.

***

When I think about my experiences as a teacher in an English-speaking classroom, I think about how vulnerable knowing or not knowing a language can make one feel in relation to those that have language, power, and knowledge. I think about how I sometimes feel the need to hide my lack of good English. Then I think about all these women and wonder if I need to hide. They brought all their stories together to the classroom that day – Englishlessly. These were powerful stories rendered broken by unseen violence – the kind that is not easy to protest openly. And when they read out their stories, we didn’t know it then, but we were building our own histories with no help from anyone.

60-year-old Jamuna Devi is the Sarpanch of Gram Bamana in Madhya Pradesh. She rebelled against her family and managed to study till the 11th std. She wanted to do engineering but wasn’t allowed to – and so, out of vengeance, she made her lazy husband do engineering. Today, Jamuna Devi is fighting for the labourers who were displaced due to the Bhakra Dam project.

60-year-old Jamuna Devi is the Sarpanch of Gram Bamana in Madhya Pradesh. She rebelled against her family and managed to study till the 11th std. She wanted to do engineering but wasn’t allowed to – and so, out of vengeance, she made her lazy husband do engineering. Today, Jamuna Devi is fighting for the labourers who were displaced due to the Bhakra Dam project.

***