Metonym 2021

In the coming month, our classrooms are going to change. So will our department. As always, the people desperate for these changes are neither students nor teachers. They are idiots drunk on power and god knows what else.

Sometimes when we sit in the department drinking chai, I get nervous because Arul sir won’t sit still. Let’s do Metonym, let’s do colloquium, let’s do screening, let’s do causerie. I always think where this man gets his energy from. It’s from chai, yes. But also from an intense desire to build a space for students that others are constantly trying to take away.

What he gives us is also a way of reimagining students as people beyond register numbers and DPs on MS Teams. Very few people take youngsters seriously these days. And most others like to believe that the only way in which youngsters can be taken seriously is if they do political things. As if that’s all young people are good for- and if they aren’t, a couple of heavy-metal english words are thrown at them to make them feel like crap.

In the last two weeks, I’ve seen young women show up for each other, be cheerleaders without pompoms, giggle and laugh together, be curious about each other, and hold each other in a way that only people who’ve never been held can. It always tickles me to watch two girls become friends. I watch them like a cat and smile and think, ah, this is why I became a teacher – to watch female friendships for free.

When those high on power like to stand in a line and throw cow dung on others who are on their way to work, the only way to defeat them is by playing everyday. It’s what my work allows me to do. It allows me to play with students which is all kinds of amusing because I didn’t play this much even when I was a child.

Despite what’s coming, I’ve gone to bed every night these last two weeks feeling great intrigue, envy, surprise, and above all, extreme fidaness for students.

So my dear Ashwath Narayana, what I want to say is, if you take our classrooms away, we will go outside and play.

Teaching in Dangerlok

Couldn’t sleep one night so spent it all by reading Eunice De Souza. I wish I could have more reading nights like these even if they make me groggy and teary the next day.

Eunice De Souza’s Dangerlok is what I needed to combat fucking NEP. Rina Ferreira, the single, double-parrot-keeping teacher in Bombay has the life, the guts, the buddhi that I want for me. She teaches English at a college, smokes, talks to her parrots, writes letters to her lovers, chills with her friend Vera with whom she goes oor-suthooing, comes back home, smokes, drinks chai, reads, and sleeps.

Every now and then, I need to be gently whisked and battered into remembering that I am a teacher. I spent all my childhood wanting to grow up and make my own money and now that I am doing it – I am barely even acknowledging it. I act as if I’m so used to it. But I need to, now and then behave as if it still surprises me that I teach for a living, for thrills, for fun, for play. That I get paid to do what I love.

Some moments from last week that I want to remember:

  1. At an NEP meeting, someone said, “When you run into students years after you’ve taught them, they are not going to recognize you and thank you for teaching them passive voice. They will remember that you taught them Julius Caesar”
  2. I returned to a science class to teach them general english after very long and had more fun than I’ve had teaching anything else in years. I became again, the girl I was nine years ago who wasn’t sure of anything except knowing that some thank yous are more genuine than others. And that when a student stays back after class to say it, words that once echoed sharply in hollow classrooms now make me smile. With this gratitude, I move from one meeting to another on MS Teams.
  3. After I said bye to them last week, I was very nearly crying. We had been talking about English- its miseries and joys. And how it’s nothing to be afraid of, how there was once a man who sometimes wielded English like a weapon, sometimes like a suit, and sometimes as so much a part of him that it’s hard to imagine he once didn’t know English.
  4. I am not very easily moved to tears when I talk about English. But to talk about English amidst students much like me was reassuring, like finding your own people after a long day of being lost. The English here is the kind we learn to speak despite school, despite teachers in school, despite not speaking it at home, and despite education itself.
  5. Sometimes students can be so fiercely themselves, so delightfully hungry to learn that I wonder who is the teacher here. There is so much to learn from students about how to stand up against governments that are so anti-students and anti-learning. Those who come from such far away places to learn and make a stable future for themselves remind you of the anger you feel in your teeth for this fuckall government in whose imagination, the student is a young NRI- return Modi.
  6. Later that same day, I broke down in class, again. Turned camera off this time. And cried harder when they reached out to console me. I was telling them about what it was like to be a young teacher. Did students take young women teachers seriously back then? I was telling them about not being able to stand in front of a class to teach Romeo and Juliet after I’d allowed myself to be belittled by opinions and that if I could go back in time, I’d own Shakespeare’s ass the way I know I can, the way this department has taught me to.
  7. Any department that can teach its young Dalit women teachers to not be afraid of Shakespeare or of students who think they know Shakespeare just because they know English is an enemy of the Savarna state which makes the NEP – a beacon of Savarna rashtra and every teacher fighting it across the state, an Ambedkarite.
  8. After classes these days, I am watching young people take care of other young people. Metonym, our inter-class literary championship is an excuse for us to make fraandship with students. It’s the last thing we’ll be able to do before NEP hits us so all my enthu is going there and I’m hoping they remember us for this, if not anything else.
  9. I am exhausted from asking myself what would Ambedkar do if he was here so I’ve been watching Saarpatta every morning to begin the day.
  10. Yesterday, in a Theatre Studies class when a student was just getting ready to perform, his mother walked in, banged a kitten on his lap and went away. He grabbed it in both his hands and threw the paapa kitten somewhere. She’s called Mia it seems. I died laughing.

Eunice De Souza would write her way out of NEP. It’s what I think I should also do. Why aren’t there any biographies of Miss De Souza? If there are, please tell me. I want to read.

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.