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.

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.

Doors

It’s exhausting to occupy two worlds when you know that really, you belong to only one because that’s where you want to be. Home is home only when I don’t have to deal with the fatherliness of boundaries, the anti-elixir of freedom. I wonder now what happens to the body in this fight between the life you want to live and the one you can’t escape.

A week ago I saw that in my mind I live a completely different life from one that is expected out of my body and me at home. Coming back home from work before the pandemic only held the promise of sleep and early morning solitude. It didn’t need me to change who I was before stepping into the house because everyone would already be asleep, except mother whose anger simmered on her eyelids in a half dream-half awake state.

That I had a place to be in every morning for nine years, that I didn’t have to wear another face for work, another for home offered me a kind of freedom I haven’t appreciated enough. It is irritating to write this with what I assume is a cheap xerox copy of freedom, knowing that outside this room, there are people with the original, people who see a completely different life for me, and seem awfully confident that it’s all going to happen, despite me.

I feel like a fraud sometimes, talking and dreaming of freedom with passion and fury – never intense enough to go get it. Sometimes I am able to persuade myself into believing that parental expectation is not free of caste, so I shouldn’t wallow in a helplessness that wasn’t designed by me. Despite that and despite years of knowing and unknowing caste, I continue to be bothered by how unsettling it is to confront that there’s still something I don’t have and will never have. Every day I wonder what it would be like to be the student whose ambitions burn my insides with a fever, to be in homes where marriage is barely mentioned, and dinner is always a table full of charts and maps- making plans to go here, go there for studies, and mornings aren’t battlefields for last night’s unspoken demands.

Stepping outside my room after class last week, I overheard someone say on the phone that getting daughters educated is a mistake, that they shouldn’t be sent to schools because they grow up wanting to do PhD, not wanting to be married. I walked straight back into my room, my legs burning with the desire to run, hands wishing they were now holding the key to the department door while my bedroom door swelled with rage and slammed hard on the other world, the bolt clicking it shut.

Today, I am just grateful for doors. They not only open other worlds for you, they also close.

What I learnt about Writing from Jaisingh Nageswaran’s Photographs

In December last year, I spoke to photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran about his Mullai Periyar River photo-series. It was a humbling conversation. I was joined by Kiruba Devi who brought her watery giggles. He said some things that weren’t in the published piece but I want to remember them so I am putting them here.

  1. He said that the first time he held a camera, he felt strong. Like he’d finally learnt the language and will to live.
  2. When he visited Ambedkar’s house in Bombay with some friends, he said they ‘breathed deliberately to inhale the same air as Ambedkar’
  3. He becomes a child everytime he goes to the river.
  4. After spending years taking photographs around the country, he returned home to Vadipatti in 2020 and decided never to leave. The space in his Mumbai apartment was uninspiring and he grew bored of its neat Asian Paints-coloured walls. He longed to go back to the white-washed walls of his childhood home.
  5. First in the lockdown-series of photographs is a partially open door, a sliver of light escaping as if from a projector in a cinema hall (Caption: ‘Life in the times of Corona / Day 1/21’.) Then there’s a blue plastic bag with medium-sized tomatoes hanging on a wall next to bunched up black wires. Even in the everydayness of the images he chooses to photograph, his eye picks up details that are extraordinary because they neither come with the polish of manufactured- lockdown images that were all too regular on social media in the first few months of 2020 nor are they charged with the heaviness of mainstream aesthetics.
  6. In his hands, the camera is not a tool. It’s a scribe. We sense that his camera is not only recording the pictures but is actively plunging into people’s stories and writing them. The comments on his Instagram feed are full of appreciation. And it’s not hard to miss that he doesn’t reply to the people who leave praise for his work. ‘I am still learning to get better at English. When I do, I will reply to them’. Well-wishers alert him when his Instagram stories carry misspelt English words and he immediately deletes them. Writing in Tamizh is equally challenging because of dyslexia but what’s also true is that he has often been told that his pictures are so evocative, they need neither captions nor grammar.
  7. What I see in his photographs are the presentiment of a plunge and the plunge itself. And it’s how I have come to learn a lot about writing — by simply staring at Jaisingh Nageswaran’s pictures.

Leaky selves

Happy Ambedkar Jayanthi.

Today, my mother showed me how to close the leaky tap in our new house. She said, “I’ve told this to others but I don’t think they do it. It doesn’t take very long. When you close the tap fully, it starts leaking so what you must do is hold it gently and open it just a little bit, it will stop leaking.” I went to my room nodding but vaguely feeling like she was not talking about the leaky tap.

On some days, self-respect and leaky taps are the same. My self-respect leaks because I don’t know where to stop, when to not or how to summon it when I need it most. Today is as good a day as any other to remember that writing is my way to self-respect. Whether in English, Kannada or fucking Konkani.

Yesterday, Divya and I talked about the hate that is directed at Dalit Women for being visible. There’s a certain comedy to people carrying around a scale to measure Dalitness. Basically what has been decided by new-age woke Babas is that the only marker of Dalitness is invisibility. That if you are even a little visible, alive, dancing, eating, living – dude, are you even Dalit? The tragedy is that they don’t see this as comedy.

I thought of what has changed in five years and what hasn’t. I am a little more charmed by bullies than I used to be. My hair is longer. I have a sense of what a good day is like. I smile more. I love teaching more than I did back then. I can tolerate my non-writing days somewhat restlessly but I can. I am getting worse at respecting writing deadlines. My sense of self is still dangerously tied to things it shouldn’t be tied to. I learnt to cook some small things. I learnt to care for plants. I planted avocado pits over the lockdown last year and they are growing, fuck. I still make useless chai.

I am still writing.

Dear Toni

I broke down in class last week when I was reading out this piece by a student. I haven’t wept in class before. I have caught myself just short of breaking down (sometimes unsuccessfully) while saying goodbye to students in the last class. But never like this, never in the middle of reading a piece. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if the piece wasn’t written by a student. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if she had never sat in my classes, if I had never watched her write, if I didn’t know what she was talking about. But I did, and I do. I am making excuses after all. I have always cried after reading her, sometimes privately, and now I can say publicly as well. She wrote things that aren’t easy to write. I cried because she was walking around with everything she hadn’t written until she wrote that piece, I cried because I don’t know what else she is still carrying.

I could have stopped reading, told the students to read it on their own, switched my camera off and composed myself. But I kept going, I don’t know why. I think she made me keep going. And I pray she keeps me going.

I once cried at Meta when a girl student had yelled at me under the banyan tree in college. I didn’t know what to do. But I just kept thinking, if I were a man, or a tall & pretty Savarna teacher with perfect teeth, sharp nose, and bright wide eyes, I wouldn’t be crying under the banyan tree. Maybe I would, I don’t know – but it’s unfair – this desire to know what it would’ve been like if I was Savarna. After all, how often does a Savarna teacher spend time thinking about what it’s like to be a Dalit teacher?

And also – I don’t like feeling that way. Because I know that if I were Savarna, I wouldn’t have been able to read Beloved the way I did and let it live inside me like it now does. There is a reason you write the way you do and when I’d finished reading Beloved, I felt closer to you in a way I wouldn’t have been able to feel if I were Savarna.

I don’t know if I’d have not cried if it were a boy yelling at me, not a girl. Because boys and their words have a way of hiding behind my teeth and making me angry and sour, never sad. The girl returned after months with two roses and an apology. I smiled and accepted all three. Then I wondered if I shouldn’t have, then I was happy that I had. Will I ever reach a stage where I’ll be confident about the choices I’ve made? Will I ever know what to do immediately? Will I ever have it in me to not cry, not be angry? But why should I not cry? What will I do with all that strength it takes to not cry? Where in my body will I keep so much strength? So much self-respect? So much control? I don’t have that much space in my body for that kind of control.

***

I have been waking up early, not to write oh but how I wish I could. I have been waking up early to look at the sky and think of you. I had read that you woke at 4 to make coffee and watch the light come. It’s how you knew that you were ready to write each day. That you didn’t have to be in the light, you had to be there before the light with coffee to know you were ready to write. I loved the sound of that so much that I have been waking early to watch the sun come up, to look at the way it touches the tree outside my door, and to think of you. Thinking of you makes me want to get ready to write.

I don’t know how it’s possible but your belief in storytelling, in the stories your parents told you, about themselves, and the world is how I see mine. I think it’s not easy for Savarna people to understand this or to even take this seriously. And I am learning to live with that. Because their inability to see love and stories makes me never want to give up on myself.

Today, I woke at 4:30 from a dream I wanted to urgently return to so I went back to finish it (Possessed teddy bear-owl with flapping, beating wings is going nuts in my room. Doesn’t leave me alone so I dump it in the trash outside. It becomes a baby and sits on the windowsill cackling at me before jumping to its death and returning again to my bedroom to haunt me. Basically this is Clifford Geertz + Mixer Week + Google Meet+ Online classes)

And when I woke up again, it was 5:59 and I felt like the day was already over, that I was too late. Then I really woke up, told myself to fuck off and begin the day (take trash out, bring milk, put it to boil, put bread in the oven, boil water, make coffee)

After that crying episode, I was afraid the students wouldn’t take my classes seriously anymore. That because of this ’emotional’ outburst, I have shown them that my intellectual relationship with the subject at hand (Resisting caste) has been compromised.

But then I thought, wtf – a teacher moved to tears because of something her student has written is nothing to be ashamed of. If there are teachers who have cried teaching Shakespeare, then A. Suresh is no less than Shakespeare. But it will be used against me, I know that. Someday, when I am least expecting it, it is going to come back and bite me.

So yes, bite me.

“I am not interested in happiness. Not yours, nor mine nor anybody’s. I don’t think we can afford it anymore. I don’t think it delivers the goods. Most important, it gets in the way of everything worth doing. Happiness has become a bankrupt idea, the vocabulary of which is frightening: money, things, protection, control, speed, and more. I’d like to substitute something else for its search. Something urgent, something neither the world nor you can continue without. I assume you have been trained to think- to have an intelligent encounter with problem-solving. It’s certainly what you will be expected to do. But I want to talk about the step before that. The preamble to problem-solving. I want to talk about the activity you were always warned against as being wasteful, impractical, hopeless. I want to talk about dreaming. Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one. Not idle wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision. Entrance into another’s space, someone else’s situation, sphere. By dreaming, the self permits intimacy with the Other without the risk of being the Other. And this intimacy that comes from pointed imagining should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action. We are in a mess, you know; we have to get out, and only the archaic definition of the word “dreaming” will save us: “to envision; a series of images of unusual vividness, clarity, order, and significance.”

~Toni Morrison~

When I read this from your Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address, I had a warm desire to hear you and Babasaheb talk to each other. I grew hungry to have you both in my belly, walk into a classroom and roar, walk to my table and write my heart out.

Someday, it will happen. I can feel it gathering in my fingertips.

Image credits: Speakola

Featured image credits: nytimes.com

Not going to stop

The distress about Dalits being able to access reservation and social capital is somewhat similar in that it upholds the argument that Dalits have unfairly and insincerely used something in their favour to promote themselves. You are saying that their achievements (however little or nonexistent) are always the result of somebody else’s hard work, friendship, and favour; that they have had to do no work to access the privileges they appear to be enjoying; that their work had nothing to do with their “capital” – social or otherwise. The erasure of work and merit from a Dalit person’s journey is violent.

***

Detour: While I still haven’t learnt how to take a moment to pause when my work is attacked, I am only now coming to the idea that I need to recognize it for what it truly is – a distraction. Meaning, it doesn’t merit more than one nod, two sighs, three teas and then – back to work.

But I feel compelled to protect my work because I don’t know who else is going to do it for me. I don’t see why people should take the effort to slip out of their day into mine only to vent bitterness. What instinct can cause people to lose themselves so uncontrollably to hate? And why am I expected to rise above and not make it about myself when my work is being questioned? I’m sure people will stop saying ‘You are not your work’ if they had any idea about how caste functions.

I spent the last three days responding to hate with anger. I was distracted. I couldn’t read or write without looking back, without feeling that someone was attacking something valuable and that I had to be there to protect it, not here – reading. I longed to go back to the week before where I’d settled into a routine of reading, listening to podcasts, and watering plants. Thankfully, after days of restlessness and the inability to read, I arrived at Toni Morrison’s words and now feel purged.

Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

I’m partly charmed by how easily this is also about caste. An attack on your work is a summon. It keeps you from working. That is its purpose – to stop you from doing what you really want to do. That is also the function of caste. It demands your full attention. It’s a trap. The more distracted you are, the longer they can keep you from working. Reading these words was like rubbing salt into the wounds of time wasted.

In an interview about writing Beloved, Toni Morrison was asked if she became as angry writing it as the reader was when they were reading it. “Is it possible for you to have written Beloved dispassionately?”

She says – “I couldn’t write it in anger. It is a paralyzing emotion. You can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, igniting feeling. I don’t think it’s any of that. It’s helpless. It is absence of control. And I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers, and clarity in order to write. Anger doesn’t provide any of that. I have no use for it whatsoever. I could be melancholy and I could be full of regret. But anger is useful to the people who watch it. It’s not useful to me”

When the interviewer misinterprets it to mean aloofness, she is quick yet patient to correct him – “Not aloofness. I am not aloof and unfeeling. I am an artist. It’s about putting those things in a different cauldron. My compassion could be just as harmful, my love, my fervor too. But to write a book, I must be penetrating and roving. After all, art is but the restoration of order”

I feel saved by these words today and I wish I remember to be saved by them every other day.

In memory of those who stood for a long time holding cow dung in their hands, and those who earnestly and diligently continue to do so – I am celebrating my blog. It is my version of the ‘extra saree’. This is my capital. I learnt how to write here. Keep throwing. I’ll keep writing. Not going to stop even if you stop throwing ❤️

It might also do me some good to remember that summer of 2018 when I was reading whatever I could find by Elif Batuman, and bothering those around me with questions on freedom, work, & love. Something about how women manage to find & keep joy in life.

A writer I really admire had told me this:

“I never ever feel the whole world is attacking me. I have no engagement with the whole world. I am very very interested in the opinions and judgements of a small group of people and even there much much much less than I did in my 20s. I don’t believe the whole world is interested in me either”

I was reminded of this today and want to print it out and keep it on me at all times. It makes me zoom out of myself for a bit and look at everything from a distance, always a relief since it’s so difficult to zoom out when anger takes over.

You can listen to Morrison’s interview here.