The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2020 – Making Do

***Disclaimer and announcement both attached***

My mother grew up in a house full of children. They were 7 but it always seemed like they were seventeen. And because there were so many of them, I imagined them all in a large and crumbling bungalow with squeaky, uneven staircases. I have neither lived in this house nor seen it. But years ago, I caught a passing glimpse when it was pointed out to me from a speeding auto. I stuck my neck out and saw what appeared to be a small house, heaving on its haunches surrounded by piles of bricks and cement. The house, as it turns out, had always been small – only its ghost in its own stories had been big like my mother’s laugh, which is loudest when she laughs with her two sisters.

It is louder when she laughs soundlessly- her eyes watering, face contorted, cheeks red, belly shaking, the rest of the body motionless on the floor – which is were they sat – her and her sisters – chattering endlessly, reminding each other of what they’d done as children.

All their stories are marked with a kind of poverty that they never learnt to forget. The one they often narrated involved a month-long wait to watch Amar Akbar Anthony in a theatre. The oldest earning member of the family, their brother (then 22) had to be convinced. Money had to be earned. So they took turns in selling more bags of tea powder than usual.

Finally, they made a small bag full of coins which couldn’t jingle because it was that heavy, and wound very tightly with a rubber band. Preparations began 3 days before the show. Clothes were washed and left to dry until they were warm and crunchy. They were then put under the beds and left to self- iron.

On the day they were supposed to go, the rain wouldn’t stop, the theatre was far away and they had to change two buses to get there so they decided to go the next day. At this point while narrating the story, my mother and her older sister took turns to imitate their middle sister who, when she was told they couldn’t watch the film that day – had rolled on the floor, beaten her chest and wept. She had made the most earnest preparations to watch the film that evening, so she spent a good few years after that being very angry with rain. Finally, they all got to watch Amar Akbar Anthony and it is perhaps one among the very few films that my mother didn’t mind us watching on repeat.

All the other houses my mother found after that could never become homes. How could they if she had to light a dozen agarbattis everytime she cooked fish? Or if she had to pretend we weren’t home when owners came to ask rent or complain about something?
***
Appa grew up in hostels more than in homes. He tells his stories like Siddalingaiah did – with a lot of heart and stomach. And because his laugh comes from somewhere deep inside his stomach- when his belly shakes violently, it is curious how the laugh comes out of his mouth in whispers, not sounds.

Pranks make him laugh, prank videos make him laugh more, Vadivelu makes him laugh, people who fall, fart, flee make him laugh. His favourite classroom story is about a boy whose bum was apparently pinched a lot, especially right after he gave attendance – so every time he said “Yes saar” – it was always followed by aiiiiieeee.

When my father imitates the boy’s aiiiiieeee, his face never betrays the expression of a properly pinched bum.

I eat these stories the same way I have eaten all their other stories – their humiliations in college, defending themselves against the gods of merit, not having money or food, being bullied for not being good enough, not knowing how to talk to people, and dealing with unkind, ugly, casteist institutions.

These stories live together, not because my parents wanted them to. They were made to. It was how they managed with what they had, it was the only way they knew how to make-do.

This is how I have come to know ‘Making-do’ – what about you? Write and send to barbranaiduprize@gmail.com

***DISCLAIMER: For the kind souls who walk around with a Savarna checklist of political correctness and might take offence at the bum-pinching or might feel that being able to watch Amar Akbar Anthony is not Dalit enough, not poor enough: Naale banni***

Bn 2020 Word A3_page-0001.jpgDownload the attachment here: BN 2020

 

Happy birthday, Savitrimai!

Happy Birthday and Happy Teachers' Day
Happy Birthday and Happy Teachers’ Day

Happy Teachers’ Day to the woman who fought quietly, and knew that carrying an ‘extra’ saree in her bag was revolution enough. Celebrating this occasion on any other day is reinstating fixation with what my friend calls a ‘Savarna work ethic’ which is to give what’s needed and withhold the most important part of you for yourself – whether it’s time, energy or love – Savarna work ethic runs under the assumption that whatever you are giving to work is somehow ‘more than enough’, everything else is ‘extra’

Reminds me of the sweet, studious, Brahmin girls from school who would never share their notes, and who just had to leave school at exactly 3:00 PM even if there was drama practice, or extra curricular work to do. They ran back home to study and wouldn’t let anything get in the way. It’s powerful in its own right but establishes a sad limitation on how much you are allowed to give (in love and work) – nahi chahiye, beda.

Savitrimai went to work everyday and walked amidst literal name-calling and cow-dung-slinging. People waited outside her house armed with cow-dung to throw at her. She never stopped going, she never stopped working, didn’t even pause to defend herself, or even attack back. She carried an ‘extra’ saree and changed when she got to school. On her way back, she wore the morning saree because they were still standing with cow-dung, waiting for her return. I never get tired of telling this story because it has power and charm and endless lessons on revolution.

Savarna work ethic is sometimes just standing with cow-dung. The answer to that is to keep walking, to keep working and to keep an extra change of clothes in your bag. We need it now, we needed it yesterday, and we need it tomorrow.

Here’s an old piece I wrote on Maltirao Baudh who sang beautifully about Savitrimai.

Inventory

Where did my birthday go?

You woke up feeling a biting change. You used to be more excited by things like this. What’s up? Last evening, you joked with friends about tired knee joints and baldness. Is something catching up with you?

I am beginning to hate my hands. They don’t rest nicely. When I am on my desktop trying to work, my hands are always itching to open new tabs. They are restless to know things I can live without knowing (which movie has Shah Rukh kissed most neck in?)

The worst thing your hands do is take you to Netflix long after you have finished watching season 3 of Crown. What business do you have there, especially after binge is over? What is this compulsion to open 5 tabs at once when all you need to do is send one email?

On my way to lunch today, I thought of Pa and how he has a relationship with movie titles. How pissed he still is with all Shah Rukh films because the titles are mostly about love (Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Dil Se)

You should start writing even the little things down – even the ones you are sure you won’t forget, especially the ones you are sure will make a great beginning to your book. They will excite you then leave you. Things are leaving you. You are leaving them too but you have no memory of it. At least not now.

I feel guilty when I use too many words.

There is no shame in using too many words. Use as many as you want. Fill your teeth with words, pour them out on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and your blog. What are you afraid of?

I am afraid that it’s not necessary.

Well, it’s not necessary for you to write. Why do you do it then?

That’s different.

If you only want to do things that are necessary then you are living quite badly.

I live alright, even you know that.

Then use words – in excess. All the time. Why feel guilty? What is the point of telling your students that writing must come from a place of shamelessness when you refuse to do it yourself?

Shouldn’t I be less shameless now? I am 31.

Fuck you.

Ok, I get it. I just want to be a different person on some days.

You already are. You were 30 yesterday, you are 31 today, you will be 32 tomorrow.

Fuck you.

Knowing and Unknowing

At some point in 2015, I became very comfortable with the idea that teaching is an autopilot thing. That it was enough if I had read a text/poem/short-story once – no matter how long ago it was – that it would be enough if I remembered it. Teaching was – more than anything else, remembering. And sometimes only that.

I woke up in 2018 accidentally, when for an Arts and Culture Journalism class, I had to read Pauline Kael again, but this time – I fell for her. I noticed a lot of things that I had barely paid attention to the first time. Her words made me hungry to write like that and I felt very alive. So I spent an hour before class that day drinking pleasure out of her Bonnie and Clyde essay and then making notes on the white board in the small media lab. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and it was a very unusual feeling. It’s sadly the only hour in seven years where I think I actually did well.

The preparation that went into that hour was eerily close to the preparation that went in for a class on Metonymy and Synecdoche three years ago. But that lecture was a disaster even if the pleasure was similar. I had just begun to understand the concepts but not enough to teach them. A lot of things had gone wrong but that hour taught me to measure my own learning before I did anything else with it.

And the Pauline Kael class taught me how to measure my learning. I learnt that in order to know what I was saying, I needed to perform a different kind of remembering – a more reliable kind – something that even students could take pleasure in seeing. This kind of remembering was easier because I only had to figure out what the element of pleasure was but it was also trickier and more difficult because this meant I also had to convince students that this kind of learning was valuable. And it’s only now that I can say – I cannot convince them without knowing enough.

I am paying attention to this because it is distressing to notice that students who are very aware of their learning, whose faces light up when I begin to talk about a poem lose interest because I am unable to go beyond a point. And I want very much to complete that circle of learning for them and that circle of teaching for me – simply because they are interested.

In Seattle, I was a student again- furiously taking notes because I was afraid I would forget something that had made too much sense to me, that if I don’t immediately write it down, it would be lost, and the world would be a distressing place to live in again.

That was how I learnt and now, it’s how I want to teach.

I am beginning to see the 50 mins that I spend in the classroom with students as time I’ll never get back, not even if it’s the same class the next day. I have to give this all I have, no matter how many times I return to it later.

***

Teaching Creative Writing is becoming more and more challenging. To begin with, I have to get over my own boredom with using old materials. I stick to Deepak Bhat’s Monsoon memories because its lessons are plenty and liberating. And I want to continue sticking to that. But I think I am becoming a little disillusioned with my own comfort with speaking about writing because writing has been the hardest this year, and so speaking about it has been hard too.

The Dalit and Bahujan literature classes were difficult to teach this semester. It kept me on my toes for several reasons. For once, it made me return to Ambedkar every week. And I learnt a lot but had no idea where to put it or how.

And then I also saw that this is a class where I’d have assumed the auto-pilot method to work very well but it’s the only class where an auto-pilot method will never work because it’s difficult to talk about Ambedkar first as a Dalit man, a leader, a political figure and then to make students see the other Ambedkar – the sexy writer. And I can never do this from memory. I can only do it from a place of reverence and playfulness both of which are difficult to produce week after week without having read Ambedkar every day.

This semester, I read Maggie Nelson, Ali Smith, Natalia Ginzburg, and Miranda July but I don’t know what it means if I haven’t felt the desire to take them to classes yet but have enjoyed reading them very much. Maybe this has a lot to do with my realisation that teaching and writing are not on auto-pilot anymore and this scares me but it also makes me feel like an adult with real problems.

I now realise that the only writer I have consistently read over this year is Ambedkar and I am looking forward to approaching him as a creative writing teacher next semester.

We are here only

There is a girl who lives 2 houses behind mine, and she never misses sunsets. We don’t know each other and this is ok because what would we do with the sudden, almost brutal knowledge of seeing each other one morning, sitting demurely on our two-wheelers, in our office clothes, going to office? It is far too naked.

I like that this is the only way we have come to know each other. Together, we watch the sunset in Basavanagudi. It might be setting everywhere else too, but from the way we both swallow the orange pink light, and eat the sun whole – from here and from there – it feels like it setting only for us.

It’s nice to know that there is always a moment when we walk the length of each of our terraces, that when we are walking away from the sun, we are both wondering what we are missing, so we keep looking back to find that nothing has changed and everything has.

There is also a boy, a few houses to the left, who stands at the edge of his terrace, (dangling from it, really) to take pictures. Occasionally we look at him but in our universe, he is a dot. He isn’t here for the long haul like we are – where, after the sun disappears into the papery thin sky, and there’s that moment of total silence (as if the only thing that should happen when the sky is drained of color, when the plunger plunges everything out from the sink – is silence) he is gone, but we are here – she and I.

That’s when the birds come. They fly in the same pace, towards the same direction, often noiselessly, like a still painting where only the birds look alive. It’s then that we leave, the both of us, feeling full and somewhat empty.