Categories
Caste Dalit History Month Food

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.

Categories
Dalit History Month Teaching Writing

Q for Qualification

Art by EV Anil
   Art by EV Anil

I’m thinking about what you were doing now, at this moment, in 1918. When you were teaching at Sydenham College, and students liked your classes but you weren’t allowed to drink water from the same jug as your colleagues. What did you do, Baba? I am haunted by which of these scenes you carried back home everyday. I am haunted by what you thought of, how you worked, what you did in powerless situations, how you picked up the stone. I want to work like you did. I want to write like you did. You had fire in your words & people are still lighting pataki with them.

When you got ready for work the next day, were you comforted by the prospect of meeting students who liked your classes or demotivated by that jug of water? What did you do after a bad class? What did you do when you were asked to prove your worth again & again?

I find little respite from watching this scene in a film about you. Before you walked into the classroom, there were whispers about your qualification & unfitness to teach. You told them calmly – “If any of you feel like I am not qualified to teach you, and would like to leave, feel happy to do so now” – and I felt lit up from within.

I wish I’d said that one morning in 2016. I wish I knew you in 2015. I wish I’d put your picture up on the wall next to my table in 2014. How powerless & hopeless those times were when I didn’t know you & your words. I was once accused of not being qualified to teach. And I let myself down by believing it was true. My degrees didn’t come to my rescue then- your words did. And now I know that you are the only qualification I’ll ever need. You know what’s funny though? When I put your picture up, they all ran away, Baba. They left skid marks.

I keep hunting for books that can give me anecdotes about you but most of them only have text-book type information. If I wanted that, I’d go back to school. But I want to know other things about you – what were you like when you were in love, Baba? What letters did you write when you were in love? What was your first kiss like? What did you like playing on the violin? Why did you not like eating? What’s with the three fishes only deal? What made you laugh? Did you like dogs or cats or both? Where did you get your suits stitched from? How did you manage to keep your giggles inside when people yammered on about Savarna merit?

I’ll tell you something funny now. That story of you falling into an ash pit from a tree & how people called you Boodisaheba & you told them “Lol, screw you peeps, I’ll be Babasaheb someday” is my favourite. I tell it to people all the time.  Some of them have very seriously come to me & said “You know that didn’t happen no?” – and I laugh out loud. Siddalingaiah knows it happened, you know it happened, I know it happened. Who are these other people & why are they after our joys?

Baba, sometimes I feel very lost & I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I take forever to notice when I am being humiliated. And when I do, it’s too late – moment’s passed, they’ve gone & I feel like throwing stones at nothing. I can’t always think on my feet & this scares me. Sometimes I forget to remember you, especially in moments when it’s all I should do to feel powerful – I still forget, and then I sit & curse myself. It’s only now that I am learning to shut up & work & not worry about responding.

I like wearing suits now because of you. Appa still wears them all the time, like Ajja used to wear them all the time. I think Appa thinks they are like sweaters. He feels warm. I used to laugh at him but now that I also wear them, I know where the warmth comes from.

Image credits: Art by EV Anil

Categories
Dalit History Month Writing

W for Words

I thought it was ok to use them in excess, it was what made W for Writing possible. Then I saw that those who did it well, didn’t use too many. They were precise with a surgeon’s purpose. Their images flourished with little to no words. And I was left behind with the hollowness of too many words that have stopped singing. I felt betrayed at first. Then I thought what the hell, if it comes in excess, I’ll take it like an angry Tamizh man swallowing insults and spit it out like a Konkani Devadasi spurned in love. Writing, after all, is Avarna in its form. That’s where shamelessness comes from. Suspicion is a Savarna birthright. Let them keep it.

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Categories
Dalit History Month In Between

X for Xerox

After the board exam results are out, you are in school with your mother to collect your transfer certificate. Your science teacher with the kindest smile runs into you and asks you what you want to do after this. You have this rehearsed by now – draw in a deep breath and say, ‘Arts’ as if that breath is not meant for you. It is meant to steady the person who is hearing you say ‘Arts.’

Don’t be surprised when she looks horrified. After all, you’ve spent every day of the previous week delivering this bomb to relative after relative. But be surprised that she doesn’t look entirely devastated when she finds out how much you got in science. 66 is not bad at all, she says. Standing next to you, your mother shifts uneasily. Then why? You are smarter than this of course. Come on, why Arts? Believe her when she says smarter than this. Then stifle the need to ask – smarter than what? You can’t imagine her saying 92 is not bad to someone who got 92 because then the only thing left to say is come on with a little more effort, you could have got 99. 

But because you are weak, and don’t have the language to put up a glorious fight – take science. Sleep through the 5 am physics tuition where there are more students than there are in college classrooms. You are not hallucinating – everyone looks the same, and everyone sits in the same place. Regard the books and pencil boxes they keep on seats to ‘reserve’ it for their friends with fondness. Don’t diss it yet. Tomorrow these books and pencil boxes will come to your rescue when you have endless arguments about reservation with older versions of them.

Let shame prick you when you score in single digits but let it prick worse when they know how much you got but still ask you. 

When you switch to Arts, feel relieved with people’s lack of affection for seats. You are puzzled when anyone sits anywhere except that girl who doesn’t drink from other people’s water bottles and doesn’t eat from other people’s boxes. Discover that it’s not true that Arts students are carefree. It is the college that is carefree with Arts students. Feel happy with where you are and ignore that longing for a course where reading and writing is the only requirement.

In M.A English, realise that the more you read, the more there is to read. Look back and wonder where you would be with a degree in science, assuming of course, that you would have somehow made it. You don’t have to wonder long. Seeing one is seeing them all. The one thing that Savarna networks unfailingly produce is an assembly line of xeroxed graduates. Same to same, with or without dslr and the occasional tiffin at Brahmins’ coffee bar. 

Every time you see a tweet by Tejasvi Surya, you laugh but you know there’s a reason why this monkey was elected. You know who voted for him. That assembly line is not sleeping you know? It never does. Discover blogs written by some of them and snort every time you read ‘tambrahm blood,’ ‘tambrahm brains’, ‘tambrahm science’ — ask yourself why you wanted to be like them back in school.

They were good writers, readers, speakers, pretty. But why did it escape you that they were all spectacularly the same? There is no soul in manuals that teach good writing from bad writing for a reason. There is no soul in assembly lines for a reason. Wonder if they read your blog and roll their eyes. But you are oddly comforted and fairly unsettled by the knowledge that you are probably the only Dalit person they know so their rolling eyes is understandably of a different kind.

On some days, xerox brings relief. It is a relief rooted in knowing how easy it was to have slipped and fallen in. It is a relief rooted in gratitude. If the language for expressing gratitude is obnoxious, see which side of the assembly line you are in. On other days, wonder if your version of gratitude is the same as your father’s. He still believes science would have been the better option but you have learnt to recognise that his belief is untouched by assembly line pragmatics.

For days that are neither here nor there, there is Lorrie Moore. Read her. She makes you bearable. 

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Categories
Books Dalit History Month

Y for Yearning

Chimamanda Adichie was once complimented for not using difficult words in her stories — for writing in ‘simple’ English. She laughed her watermelon laugh and said ‘Thank you very much but that’s probably because I don’t know difficult words.’ I like to imagine that the interviewer bit their tongue and did not recover.

Reading Americanah was patting that low grumble in my stomach that is hungry to have written, never to write. It was feeling grateful for Adichie and her ‘simple’ words that brought me Ifemelu, the writer who came into being because she started blogging. It was regarding Ifemelu with a sense of wonder and being in awe of her pauses that allowed her quiet, ceaseless moments of self-respect. And then it was feeling happy for seven years of rumlolarum.com.

Race and Caste are so much the same and so much not. Reading about race is reading about caste and yet there seem to be so many Indians who are more comfortable talking about racism than caste. They don’t know caste, they don’t see caste, they say.
Ifemelu after she returns from America, says that she stopped being Black when the plane touched down in Lagos. Babasaheb said he’d forgotten he was an untouchable in America and that he became one again when he landed in India. I thought of Rajini Krish who wrote about his first time on a plane, and how he described the view from the window as ‘full white, full silence, full powerful, full myth.’ I thought of his struggle, and what he was thinking moments before he took his life.

I thought about Isidore from Togo whom I met last year at an internship program in Seattle. I thought of his hands as he beat his chest with them one day, demonstrating how wildly his heart leaps everytime he tries to speak in class. How I wanted to grab his hands, slow them down and say me too. I thought of Sandra Cisneros’ Salvador whose name the teacher cannot remember. I thought of how dense must someone be to not see the loneliness of others.

In these stories, and in others, I have always yearned to find the perfect sentences to begin writing. But I’m afraid my words aren’t perfect and I’m hungry to make them perfect. What an odd demand it is no? To write perfect about things that aren’t.

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