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.

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.

UNSTILL

Mind is crisscrossing. It’s a web connecting too many things and I came here to slow down.

I woke at 4:30 am feeling very happy because it had been raining and the sounds from the open window made me smile first thing in the morning. I lay in bed for a few more minutes, prolonging joy, wondering if I was only teasing myself with the promise of an early morning or if I was actually going to wake up and get one.

4:45 – I got up, went outside. It was dark and the rain had washed the streets and trees. Smiled more. Came back to bed and started reading. I am still with Patchett. Last two essays in The Story of a Happy Marriage. I am loving it. Went to the kitchen, made hot water, sat in bed sipping it, reading. It was still raining.

5:30 – Day broke. Went outside properly and smiled. Came back, changed into my walking clothes (oversized blue sweats and black yoga pants), took phone, earphones, Patchett and went for a walk. I listened to the soundtrack from Vita and Virginia as I walked. The music was composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sister. Fuck them both. So talented.

Many fruits were fallen pachak on the road. 3 mangoes, 2 purple berries, 3 red berries, one half-eaten banana, and half a jackfruit. Took a few pictures. After 15 mins of being consumed by V&V, I walked to the park, went inside an enclosure, sat on a bench and read. An old man came to do various exercises. We left each other alone. I read for 30 mins and came back home.

I took coffee with Patchett again and spoke to the parents for a while. Came back to bed to chill and read a bunch of essays that made me think think think. Grateful for these mornings. Was distracted by Hamzy’s Korean food-eating videos again but only mildly.

  1. You Really Need to Quit Twitter
  2. Is Google Making Us Stupid?
  3. Habit by William James

Ignoring the doomsday headlines is not difficult because I recognize that we are already anyway doomed. The irony of being led to all these essays through twitter is somewhat charming.

Bookmarking these for later:

  • Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Janet Malcolm
  • The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm
  • Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf 

Must return to Vita and Virginia.

Growing Out

Today I learnt that none of my friends from college are happily married. Almost everyone I went to college with is married, and/or a parent. These were things that elders always said would solve all our problems. You don’t know what to do after an M.A? Get married. Trouble in marriage? Have a baby. Tired of baby? Have another one. Tired of them both? Get one married.

Elders lie a lot.

And I’m glad I didn’t fall for any of it. As it turns out, the most miserable people from my past are not only married but also seem to think that not being married is the worst kind of punishment, and that telling someone they are going to be alone for the rest of their lives is an insult (giggles). Being married or in love has given them neither a life nor an escape from it. I am grateful each day for having grown up with them and grown out of them because if they were still in my life, I’d probably be like them.

I wish I had gone to a different college for my undergrad though. In *Main* College, where the Savarna spoiled brats ruled, there was very little space to find oneself, especially when one is so busy hiding oneself. The friend from college I blocked yesterday sent me a message from her husband’s phone today. It’s perhaps the only reason to get married :/

She said that I’m going to regret being alone, that she has a life because she’s got work to do (clearly) and that not everyone is lucky to belong to a family that has come up in life by looting people and taking bribes from others. (“I can now see it’s in the genes – no wonder you are this way”)

She obviously doesn’t know that it’s a casteist thing to say. She was merely repeating something she’d heard being thrown around in college by Savarna bullies. But it got me thinking about a whole lot of people who graduate in life with the luxury of never having to unlearn caste, and the luxury of never having to learn how to get a life, keep it, and most importantly – how to just be (alone, without, with, inside, outside)

I used to think that the reason I am no longer friends with these people was because I fell out with them. But it’s also that to be accepted by them, I had to be like them, laugh at the jokes made at the expense of my parents who had no idea that the people they welcomed into their home as my friends, mocked them behind their backs. This was a strange set of friends I had – they pretended to like me, basically called my parents quota parents, and attacked reservation at every opportunity they got.

But because so many of the people I meet today are either students willing to learn or adamant not to, and also twitter people whose engagement with the world begins and ends with the word ‘discourse’, I’ve half-forgotten that there is a whole world out there that only engages with people like themselves. And it’s almost comical that as a result of this, they will only know people like themselves for the rest of their lives and continue to mock people who aren’t like them.

More than anything, what seemed to upset them was that I’d moved on, found the ability to fight back with no more than three words, and didn’t seem to want to remember them anymore. I don’t remember them because a) They were horrible b) I was worse c) Thinking of them reminds me of who I used to be, which is the most powerless I’ve ever been.

The only good reason to think about them now and then is that it shows me what I was able to escape. In the very brief time I spent using three words for her dukh bhari autobiographies on WhatsApp, I saw that she hadn’t changed at all. That she was still the same person with the same insecurities. A true testament to any kind of growth is not when you are perfectly secure but when you don’t have the same insecurities you once did, or at least not in the same way. I am still an extremely insecure person but not about things I was once governed by. I am insecure about things that oddly enough, also liberate me. Not being as good a writer as my students, not writing, being an incompetent teacher, dealing with savarna people are things that I am insecure about. They occupy me in ways that make me want to do better, write more, write my way out of who I used to be.

But if I had to get married and have children to solve these problems, where would I be today?

Adulting, comrades, is not listening to adults. It also means ignoring people who are best ignored, even when they message you from their husband’s phone (this will never stop being funny)

A word I haven’t used yet but would like to have used on this post by now is the word heteronormative, which I learnt fairly recently so it’s not like I am some fancy-shmancy person, squeezé moi. It’s easy not to be friends with Savarna cabbages from my past because I don’t have to explain what it means to live a life that isn’t bound by romance, men, love, marriage, children, and caste. It’s easier because I don’t have to explain what it means to live days that bloom and make me feel alive because in it are women, teaching, writing, reading, eating, drinking, and remaining perpetually indebted to rumlolarum. But the bestest of them all is that I don’t have to explain what Savarna means. 

*Main* college: In Bangalore. Totally unnecessary to take its name. But rhymes with Main.

Rain: with apologies to Francis Ponge

⁣The rain, by the front door where I watch it fall, is only in its effects. Nothing like the way I imagine it from inside, where it falls on the house in sounds: splatters, drips, trips, pattars, thwacks, & pachaks. ⁣By the steps, it gushes in soundless patterns as if letting go after too much withholding.⁣

Outside the compound, it flows down the road, in a fierce, determined brown, the kind that means the tea is perfect. ⁣In a far away country, I once stepped out to find that it had been raining for a while, with no warning. Where is the rain if there’s nothing for it to fall on, alva? Without gudgud, without laughter?

Like it does here from pipes sticking out of pakkad manè, as the French say. Or freezes itself into white droplets on thick black wires, trickling into each other now, running away now.⁣

On mosaic, it falls with clarity. On granite, with purpose. On marble, with glory. On my palm, with giggles. But no one has quite learnt to catch it like the trees do. After all, only they seem to know what to do when it rains – stand themselves in utter, brilliant solitude, refusing to go anywhere, soaking it all in, shivering only when they want to.

Read Francis Ponge here.

Anything can happen at Knowhere

Monday, 14 December 2020, Knowhere, 10:20 PM

After half a bottle of wine, some excellent chilli beef on potato, Goan sausages, crispy prawn wafers, and beef biriyani, I was happily eating carrot halwa from a glass bowl when Mr M whispered to me, ‘Vj, your dildaar is here.’ D and K looked equally puzzled. I thought he was talking about some student so I turned around to see a bunch of grown men walking by and lost interest. But then I peeked properly and it was Saad Khan so I squealed. After partially damaging K’s arms I screamed ‘Razzak is hereeee’. I wanted to walk up to him, pat him on the shoulder and ask ‘mere koftein khaati?’

I badgered Mr M to use his utmost teacher power, walk to him and say ‘Ey basturrd, what man? I gave you attendance so now you give me autograph’ – but he just rolled his eyes. After thinking of many such scenes in my head, I gave up and booked Ola auto. It said 3 minutes so I began walking towards the exit. Saad Khan looked very posh under the yellow light and pushed back hair and nothing like my Razzak so I said chalo theek hai. Hands were sticky from biriyani and I was too lazy to go to washroom. So I stopped by the sanitiser at exit and wrestled with the damn thing. It wasn’t giving sanitiser so I kept kicking the pedal. Behind me, I could hear an obnoxiously loud man on the phone and I was thinking why only men are so loud on the phone in public places. Mr M walked calmly and told me that the sanitiser stand at the other end worked better. Obnoxious loud man was standing close to it and I could only see his periphery so didn’t want to go there. I looked at my hands and thought chalo, no saad no sanitiser in my fuckall janma and called lift.

D and K came running towards the lift. Something had happened. D was red in the face and looked flushed. She was screaming oh my god that was Danish Sait oh my god oh my god. I turned to see the fastly moving appearance of obnoxious loud man entering Knowhere. I glared at Mr M and asked ‘THAT WAS FUCKING DANISH SAIT???’

Mr M stroked his beard and said ‘ya’ with an angelic smile.

I screamed and kicked, wanting to rip that beard out. All the while I was fighting with the stupid fucking sanitiser, and when he was also telling me to use that one instead of this, he knew it was fucking Danish Sait and wouldn’t tell me? If I’d have told you, you would have screamed and embarrassed me, he said. Even if it was true, I still wanted to know he was right there when I was wrestling with fucking hand sanitiser.

Razia Razzak at Knowhere, I thought sadly and cheerily before the lift closed and my world was back to desole as the French say.

D and K kept giggling. Mr M and his beard were romancing. I cursed them all and walked to my auto.

PS – Razzak ko next time I won’t leave.