C for Coming home

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This is my workplace. I learnt to read & write here. Over the years, I have tried & failed at finding the right words to say how grateful I am to be here. Futile as it may be, I never tire of trying again – and this time, in the spirit of #DalitHistoryMonth (er, still)

To discover oneself as Dalit – not of your own accord but by the way others treat you, is one of the crudest expressions of caste. If you grow up not realizing you are Dalit, then school will show you. If you make it to college, then college will confirm it for you. If you come out alive, then you can always count on the world outside to show you & shame you for it. And this department taught me to wrench out shame, and suck it bone-dry. 

If the only acceptable & desirable way to be anywhere in the world is by being Savarna- Brahmin, this place showed me the strength of laughing at it & reclaiming being Avarna as a better way to live & work. The HoD, an Avarna man himself, imagined & built it the way he envisioned Ambedkar’s work ethic. 

The idea of a classroom, of a good student is usually built on Savarna ideals of speed, quality, & good English. Our syllabus & practice say lol to this. Designed as it is for students who will not be left behind simply for not being born in families where good English does push-ups, our syllabus makes me believe in the work I get to do everyday. And the work I get to do everyday is humbling which is why it is also easy to lol at the baboons who keep attacking it. My only yardstick to measure the worth of these attacks is to see whether they are drenched in Savarna ego, which more often than not, they are – so, meh.

One of my most crucial learning here has been that I have failed as a teacher if I have, even for one day, stopped being a student. And that to be a student is to be a sponge – learning what thrills you & drinking it up fully. And it isn’t only by reading or writing that the students & I found a self here. It’s by learning how to have full-body conversations with people, & listening to their stories.

The boy who is a Vijay fan but dances only to Dhanush songs often returns, perhaps because he sees something here. The girls who had zero interest in reading or writing come back year after year to say thank you perhaps because they learnt something more valuable from the course. The little chili from Tirunelveli returns often to sit, breathe us all in with her eyes, eat books, & laugh her heart out. As for the others who may come here half or full Savarna, they always leave with Ambedkar. What they do with him later is really up to them.

And then there are those who sit inside, drink tea, laugh, or sit outside read, talk, play the guitar – never quiet leaving.

A remarkable thing about Hogwarts is its inclusivity & diversity.  There was a half-giant, a squib, a werewolf, those born to muggle parents, Severus Snape whom it used to be so tempting to distrust, and all kinds of people who would have been left behind for being misfits. The department is my Hogwarts. In more ways than one, it makes room for misfits like me.

The first night Harry spends at Hogwarts, he is shown sitting by the window with Hedwig – looking outside and sighing. He’s finally home.

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D for Desire

It’s yellow like the amrutanjan yellow, the smell tiptoeing around your nose when you are asleep. Gone by morning like the memory of a headache.

It’s not neat like the aligned rows of corn that tempts eaters to do two things at once. One, bite off just a kernel at a time, and two – leave a gash open in its middle, showing the loud wound of oval teeth marks. There is ease in eating corn out of a cup but the spoon always gets in between – never enough to feel the fullness of it in the mouth.

Sometimes desire is a glorious unexpected purple, the kind that bursts out of colorless colliding pies in Tom and Jerry. Most other times it’s a coriander green. The kind that traps early morning sunlight and never lets it go. The kind that romances with a blob of water droplet, again -never letting go, again almost going – like lendi. 

It is wanting human intimacy to match with the pleasure of eating mangoes in white petticoats and lying on the floor for hours after, playing with the afternoon sun weaving tangible window patterns made of gold threads.

It’s permanently wondering if things would have been different if you weren’t Dalit, if there would be a ruthless admission of love and desire for you if you weren’t Dalit, if the words fuck you would’ve come to you a lot easier if you weren’t Dalit. It is wondering if Dalit anger is preferred over Dalit desire.

I googled ‘Dalit Desire’ & found a bunch of “research-based” essays, some obviously written by Savarna academics. I giggled. First they hijacked pain, now pleasure. Is it research when skill is put above experience, pain above pleasure, discomfort above desire, and community above individual?

Last year, I put together a syllabus on Resisting Caste & made a conscious decision to leave out all research-based essays, those serious, intellectual, Savarna- academic ones that play Word-Olympics with caste, those that are written in such complicated language, that even caste will begin to feel like it exists only in theory. No wonder people continue to think that caste isn’t alive anymore.

I put in experience, thoughts, dilemmas, insecurities, fear, love & decided that theory will come nowhere near my classroom. But I forgot that at a certain point in their lives, students are made to feel that if they don’t know theory, they are the Jon Snows of English academia. What to do then? How to teach? 

Ambedkar approached a lot of what he wrote on caste with the seriousness & precision of a scientist even though he had lived experience to begin with. But he knew that for his work to be taken seriously, he was going to need something stronger than experience, something that can shut people up. Merit. Scholarship. Poetry. There is a reason why I can read his works like they were love letters. Because he wrote with the passion of a poet.

Nothing is as powerful as a Dalit child reading Ambedkar for the first time. It fills her body with an energy that is both thirsty and insatiable. Like a desire to finally start living.

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E for Egg

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In the beginning of the Yugoslavian film Ko To Tamo Peva, a man in a bowler hat pokes an egg with a nail – making a tiny hole, & then sucks it all from the other end. There is no way to find out if the other end is poked too. It’s a technique that treats an egg like the secret it actually is. Pa would do this too – his choice of weapon was always the needle – a secret in itself. 

Sometimes secrets need to be cracked open on the sturdy edges of pans or broken open with knives, spoons, & forks. They need to fall with a plop leaving you no time to marvel at that sound because it’s already broken into whispers. Other times, secrets need to be nudged gently into revealing themselves. You knock on them gently at first. Consent, fucker. I know men who handle the egg delicately like it’s the only egg in the world. I know women who stand over hissing pans and throw in onions, tomatoes, coriander, chilies – leaving no room for conversation, much less secrets. 

What is a cod liver capsule if not the yolk turned inside out? 

An old love who was into bodybuilding used to eat 6 eggs every morning. He’d break them open on my head one by one & I’d fall about laughing. He ate the whites, I ate the yellows. It was perfect,  until he began throwing the yolks away because they weren’t healthy. 

Nothing else tastes like the yellow does – leaving its echo behind long after the song is over. 

In school one afternoon, I opened my dabba to find egg bhurji & chapati. I began gulping it down before anyone could find out. A girl I’d always admired for her lack of interest in boys wanted to taste the egg. I gave her some, she ate it & squinted at me. Giving me no hint as to whether the egg & I had passed or failed, she walked away with her head held high. Her friends regarded her with fear after that & stared at her wondrously through the day while I tried to understand why they never looked at me like that – the egg was in my dabba after all.

One morning in Basavanagudi, I saw a Brahmin nose walking around in utter disgust. It was sulking cutely. It didn’t approve of the egg smell in Bgudi. On some days it walked with agarbattis, flowers, & camphor. On most others – just gau mutra. The last time I saw it, it was running after a thread-wearing man who had recently married an egg-eating shudra. It was funny only because the man kept touching his nose, to make sure it wasn’t his own nose chasing him.

F for Flight. Friendship. Fight.

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After years of living in rented houses marked by fish fried stealthily, by the many agarbattis left alight on window sills, by the swollen rooms that held their breath every time an owner turned up for inspection, and by houses denied to us for not being Brahmin; Amma & Appa built this home from the memory of what their & our childhood eyes were thirsty for.

Appa’s govt job kept him moving & as a result, we lived in many houses from Chikodi, to Raichur to Bidar to Gulbarga to Mangalore to Shimoga to Belgaum to Bangalore. But those houses were never homes – there were enough reminders of that. 

As a child, I was preoccupied by the mystery of Duplex houses. Friends in school had these & while I was let into their verandas & halls – I never made it upstairs. ‘Wait here, she’ll come down’ – they always said & I waited to watch her come down. Often another friend, who was allowed upstairs would come down with her & I grew hungry for swirling stairs & the tight friendship that stood on top – arms linked, walking down together. Duplex houses came with duplex friendships.

When I passed by these houses, I looked only at the top half, longing to steal a glance. I imagined being invisible, walking up their stairs, & opening doors to their bedrooms. Handicapped by my own thrill of finally being able to see what lay behind, I never could open those doors. My curiosity for learning about women’s rooms persists. I want to see not just where they work, play & sleep but also how. 

The duplex is a permanent condition of a secret, of something hidden, of something that you have to work up to see. And more than wanting my own, I was desperate to be part of someone else’s secret.

Our duplex was finally built after years of saving & borrowing, but my friends from Jain college were convinced it wasn’t hard-earned. It came from what they called ‘our money stolen by your briber-father’ They talked with such self-assuredness & street-smart confidence that I couldn’t fight. This became a running joke & since I didn’t know how to defend my home, I joined them & laughed at myself. I learnt that if you gave someone permission to laugh at you, you could become their friend. But there were rules – and the first one was – you could never laugh at them.

My anger arrived one day when a rich boy whose father also had a government job became their friend & there was an unbearably loud & dignified silence about his duplex. Where did that silence come from? Why was he given the dignity of not being laughed at? I thought it was because he was a boy. I understood the games that caste & friends play much later. They were experts at diffusing codes – who came from where & therefore deserved respect – who didn’t – who can you laugh at – whose father you should be afraid of – whose father you can make fun of.

I’ve never wished for a backbone as much as I did then. But it seemed like every time I got one just enough to stand up & scream, tears came too. And who wants to stand fighting & crying when you can sit and join them laughing? Even so, their merit was so hard-earned that a day before every exam, they came to me for help. I stopped doing this in my final semester & they never spoke to me after that.

G for Gumption

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The first syllable of this word comes from nowhere in particular. Your tongue hangs about without really touching anything in the mouth, making room for its own stomach to gather the ‘guh’. Indeed, it’s a word that requires more than your mouth to say it. It needs the tightness of your fists & the firmness of your stomach. I first heard it in the film, ‘The Holiday’ & understood its meaning entirely from the way Kate Winslet had banged the door on a man- an asshole, turned around with infectious energy, punched the air with her fists & celebrated having fallen out of love with him. When he asks her what had gotten into her, she says ‘Gumption’

I don’t have gumption. My mother has it, my aunts have it, & mouma who passed it on to her daughters will always have it. It’s what caused amma to hold a broom over her head one day & chase away an old Brahmin man who had stopped at our gate to teach her manners. She was cleaning the front yard & he stopped to tell her that in America, people didn’t do things like that(!) She screamed, ‘saakappa hogu, naavu nodidive jagattu’ (enough man, keep walking, even we have seen the world) 

My aunt showed gumption by pushing an abusive brother-in-law into a chair, her foot firm on his chest, her eyes dancing with fire, while her index finger launched a threat at his face to never ever lay a finger on her sister. 

As a child, I believed that mouma’s gumption was hidden in her blouse and perhaps it is. It’s why she never wore a bra. She barged into temples, ate their food, prayed to their gods because she never believed that anybody should have the right to stop her, even if it’s all they did. She grabbed her paysa & ate it too. And ate it how – standing tall against all the poojaris united.

Savitrimai’s gumption was in the extra saree she carried in her bag because she didn’t have time to fight Savarna losers whose only job was to stand with cow dung to throw at her. She had work to do – her work was her gumption.

Sujatha Gidla’s mother had gumption when she ran after a train that was leaving the platform with all her belongings – marks cards, certificates. She ran with the speed of an athlete, still carrying the water bottle for which she had deboarded in the first place.

It’s the English-language’s poverty that even a word that needs you to thrust your fists in the air like a martyr, like a woman newly out of love, will never fully lend its energy to understanding Dalit survival in this country. And this is why, G for me, is Gumption & I am claiming that word to tell our stories.

 

H for hair

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The men in my mother’s family inherited a love for gossip. In my father’s, they inherited the more dignified baldness. Ajja had shiny white hair growing at the back of his head, leaving the top shinily exposed. He had a small, round face with the faintest trace of uneven white stubble, like an incomplete game of bingo.

Every Sunday morning, Ajja sat in the veranda with a towel on his lap, giving me a small hand-mirror to hold up to his face. Next to us, there’d be a red mug of hot water, shaving cream, brush, & a razor. I had to hold the hand mirror steady for him to begin shaving. I failed often because I’d keep bringing the mirror down to examine his face.

Every time I did this, he’d stare at me wordlessly & I’d say sorry & hold it back up. I couldn’t help it. I was fascinated by the procedure & wanted to take it all in. The smell of the shaving cream was always strongest when Ajja shaved. I could rarely smell it when Appa shaved boringly – standing by the wash basin. 

Ajja would squeeze a blob of shaving cream on the brush & I’d egg him on to take more. ‘Ashtu Saakagalla.’ First of all, he didn’t have much hair. There was some barely noticeable stubble, sandpapery in texture but watching Ajja shave was the single most joyous thing & I tried as much as I could to prolong the spectacle.

He’d smile, sprinkle some water on it & begin painting his face. If I opened my mouth, I could almost taste an acid-like something at this point. He made circular motions covering large parts of his cheeks, chin & throat, always saving the upper lip for last – it was the hardest & required the expertise of a beautician. He pursed his lips together & drew an efficient line, barely touching the nostril. 

Then in went the razor. Every time he cleaned a section & brought it down to dip into the red mug of water, I’d steal a glance expecting hair but there was only foam. Even so, when the blades hit the stubble, they made the most delicious, crispy, silvery sound. The sound of something sharp being cleared most gently. Hypnotized by the sound, I’d look for the expanse of naked skin on his face. There were always a few smears of shaving cream on his face – below his ears – sometimes inside, and under his neck. The foam happily floated in the red mug with occasional spikes of hair winking at us.

Post the shave, Ajja looked barren, emptier somehow. Like he had suddenly become strict, like he had no more stories. And week after week, I waited for the hair to grow so I could stand in front of him with the mirror & watch a story being told without words.

I for Inventory. Intimacy.

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One morning, I held a hot cup of tea in my hands after cutting 15 green chilies lengthwise. When the heat pulsating inwards began pouring outside, I couldn’t tell what was feeding what.

When someone who doesn’t want to laugh, laughs — I look for the line of anger on their face that suddenly hides. I worry the line will return when they are alone & I won’t be around to humiliate it into hiding again.

A friend once told me that it’s not possible to hold on to self-respect when one is in love. I felt  victorious & betrayed. Why though? It’s not like I am a mountain of self-respect when not in love.

When he drove, I liked looking at the folded sleeves of his red checkered shirt on the forearm. But I desired him most when he reversed the vehicle, and put his left arm around my seat to look back, his Adam’s apple teasing.

I get annoyed when I stand before the mirror at the end of a long day to find by bra strap peeping. Why didn’t my girls or aunties on the road tell me or better yet, put it back gently & tuck my hair behind the ear also? The only time I felt happy in convent schools was when girls would sing ‘Sunday is longer than Monday’ everytime a petticoat played hide & seek.

I don’t want feminism that takes away intimacy between women in bathrooms. Come, weep into my arms sister. I will hold you, you hold me.

When I was 6 & refused milk, Mouma pulled me to her lap & promised to show me one breast if I finished half the glass, and both if I finished the full glass, permanently ruining all possible hetero relationships for me. 

Even hickies are forgotten in hours. The warmth of chilies still hasn’t left.