Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from

Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org

After a student was told that Dalit women have a constitutionally protected act in workplaces and anybody choosing to attack such women teachers with an intention to malign them professionally would be reported to the cops; the light left his face, he touched his hair just so he could do something with his hands and his eyes grew small with fear.

He may have gulped twice before leaving the room, shaking with rage. But he never bothered me after that. Even the smug way in which he passed by me in the corridor vanished. The gossip and the malice continued of course but the glint of fear I saw in his eyes that day remained.

The Savarna woman sitting next to me shrank in size. But she remained big in my head until I discovered Ambedkar.

There was continued debate whether that speech, the interference, as they saw it, was necessary. It was necessary. It helped – because in that moment, in that room, something shifted – without harming anyone. And I continue to be curious about how a simple reminder about the constitution can produce fear in someone who is extremely confident in assessing other people’s abilities.

I am amazed that the man who built the constitution that long ago was able to see so deep into our futures and know why even the ‘right’ kind of money, marriage, color, place would still be insufficient to live with dignity.

But how much of what happened in that room that day was triggered by my caste? Did they know I am Dalit? Does them not knowing it before they attacked make them innocent? Are they innocent? Am I making a big deal? Am I being a fraud by invoking caste in this narrative ‘suddenly’ ? —  were only some of the many questions I asked myself everyday. Until a much larger question arrived and my doubts were laid to rest. Why is it my burden to ask these questions and look for answers?

It is their burden.

I take that Ambedkar is also issuing a warning to us. We cannot live and die inside our castes, even if people will make sure we do. Just as there are ways in which we believe that everything is about caste, there are also ways to believe that not everything is about caste. And neither is wrong.

***

Why do some people walk the earth as if they don’t need anybody? As if they’ve never needed anybody?

That’s why I enjoyed watching Piku, the 2015 film. I loved watching her. I loved that she was able to just walk away from conversations and men that she wasn’t interested in. That she was never in the mood to impress anyone. That she had no time for love in her life. That sex and love were in neat separate compartments. This made her more attractive, more than the lovely glow on her face, even more than those dimples.

Where does she get the strength from though? It wasn’t all because of her overbearing father no? I am not questioning it, I am celebrating it. And today I am still celebrating it while also being acutely, painfully aware about a question I didn’t think to ask before. Caste.

Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from. The strength that men and women perform onscreen and off, that I adore from the very core of my heart gains power from caste.

Why am I taking a film so seriously? But what other way is there to watch one? Don’t the women that make us laugh and cry onscreen remind us of the lovely women in our lives? Piku reminded me of many female students, and also of friends from college whom I adored from a distance.

Balamma from Gogu Shyamala’s stories walks that way too. She has to. Because like her, there are many who have no access to the PoA act even though it was made for them. And the villains in their lives are real, unlike those in mine who, at the mere mention of Ambedkar and Constitution, vanish like the memory of a loose underwear.

*Featured Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org

Two months at home; and indebted to Joan Didion & Jackie Chan

My foot is now breathing in a tub of hot water. Barely two weeks ago, I was lying in bed, my foot hoisted up on pillows – the left leg waiting to erupt from layers of dead skin – all chafed and dry. I was almost sad to see the plaster go. I’d begun to enjoy peeling bits of skin from wherever my hands could reach. They’d gather in heaps of smiling flakes as I grew hungrier for more.

Amma changed the sheets and pillow covers once a week – on the day she’d give me a bath. The flakes would then scatter themselves across the room meaninglessly, like dust.

She insisted on giving me a bath twice a week but it was too much work so I convinced her that once a week was more than enough. I put shame and nakedness through various measurements and with every passing day, I began to fear it lesser and lesser. It began on the day of the fall – the very first day when Amma had to cut open the jeans I was wearing, which was anyway torn from below the knee to make room for the horrid white plaster.

There was no sense to the pause my body offered before taking my clothes off in front of her. She was quick to notice the scars on my body that’d faded over the years. One from the time I dumped hot chai point chai on my stomach, another from the time the hot parachute bottle melted from under my palms and burnt a good part of my thigh (don’t microwave parachute oil bottles)

As I chanted the history behind each scar, she shampooed my hair. And when she poured green hot water down my back, she looked more relieved than I was — scrubbing my back with all the energy she had – almost as if offering compensation for the loud dry zone which was my plastered foot, sitting smugly inside 2 dustbin bags.

In my mind, I observed that this was the closest she’d come to giving me the balanteero bath that they give to pregnant women. She has dreamed of giving me those baths even more than wanting grandchildren.

***

Days dissolved into watching reruns of women taking Karan Johar’s ass on his show and rewinding all the Eli Gold and Elizabeth Tascioni moments on The Good Wife. When I felt like writing and couldn’t, I sought Joan Didion.

I sped through The Year of Magical Thinking with an obsession to grow old like Didion. One December morning, her daughter was hospitalized. After spending a day in and out of the ICU – Didion and her husband returned home, unsure if they would see their daughter alive the next day. They sat down for dinner and her husband collapsed on the table with a heart attack, and died.

From that point on, my little fracture grief  became laughably manageable. It was ok that I could only listen to the rain and not watch it. It made me wonder if I’d ever really listened to rain and not just watched it – which is not too different from a grunt acknowledgement. After all what is rain without its sound?

In the two months I spent at home, there were two evenings whose colors belonged in a painting. From my dining table, I watched the Bangalore sky glowing furiously and pleasantly – or somewhere between the two which – as I have come to realise – is something that only Bangalore sky is capable of (As D would say)

Its orange was pleasant, but its force was furious. It came in shocks of rectangle and threw itself on the table, lingering there for a while before slowly fading.

***

A friend mentioned Frida one day and I spent the entire day in bed feeling grateful. It’s the one film that I have watched over and over again in the last two months.

The plaster was still on when I was told to walk without support. I cringed. With every half step I took, I expected to hear the crunch of bones and iron. I am now a firm believer of right time. Sometimes it is just not the right time to watch certain films. It’s probably why I had never watched Kill Bill and now was the time to watch it. Moments after Kill Bill Vol: 2, I took my first step with no support and walked on feeling proud as fuck even as I was imagining the Kill Bill Ironside Siren Sound playing somewhere.

Reading Cheryl Strayed and Rebecca Solnit made me think about walking a lot more intensely than that fucker Proust. And now I cannot wait to listen to the sound of my walk.

Those were my strong moments. In my most vulnerable moments, I thought about my astrologer aunt who had warned me about this accident months before I fell. She has predicted all my accidents so far. My resistance was weak and I was going to succumb to the haze of stars and shani, rahu and ketu, and whatever when I suddenly remembered Jackie Chan.

I discovered that the man has had 14 major injuries in his life including a brain surgery and an eyebrow bone fracture that almost left him blind. He has slipped into a coma from hitting his head trying to jump off trees, leapt through a real window instead of a fake one, survived a Cervical spine damage from falling from a 25 meter clock tower and has had Pelvis dislocation almost causing partial paralysis. If this man had to listen to my aunty astrologer, he’d have had to quit doing what he loves long ago. Where the fuck is the place for Rahu kala Shani kala in Jackie Chan’s life?

Image Credits: myhero.com
Image Credits: myhero.com

Thanks to Joan & Jackie, I am writing from the other side with whatever little is left of my dignity.

Leg break > Heart break

Image credits: jeanandre.fr

My last entry was about discovering Proust, and waiting for the biggest heartbreak of my life to read him. In a strange twist of one ankle, two steps and a rainy evening – this has happened. I broke my leg on Tuesday and am now convinced that it is worse than all the heartbreaks I’ve had. When the heart is udhas, one can at least do karvaten badalna as they beautifully say in Hindi –  tossing and turning on the bed (its dabba English equivalent). When the leg is gone, what can you toss, when will you turn, how can you mourn?

Thoo.

I was watching Zizek (bastard) when I realised I hadn’t signed out. Took an umbrella and went down the stairs. Slipped on the last two steps and my bum fell on my ankle. I was beginning to think ok now I will  get up quickly before someone sees me while my ears caught a different horror altogether. They heard something creak.

I moved my foot and tried standing up only to fall back on my bum. It seemed as though there were no bones in my left foot and everything had dissolved into a trembling mass of jelly. I writhed in pain for a while before gathering myself into a heap in one corner.

Cut to Wednesday, I am lying on the operation table, head foggy with anesthesia but still finding the courage to blame Proust and Zizek for all this. Proust because he said something about how we never know the value of a vehicle and are never really curious about its inner workings until it breaks down. Pliss ok Proust – when I read that, the first thing I did was touch my hands, eyes, feet, hips and feel grateful. And Zizek because just. I felt the surgeons hammering something into my foot but I was more bothered about an itchy nose and my newly heavy hands that refused to move.

I am in Payannur now, recovering slowly, feeling helpless and useless. Read two pages of Proust and felt cheerful. Then read more of Wolf Hall and got frightened. Mantel is a goddess. The first chapter made me cringe but in a hungry sort of way– all those brilliant one-liners about blood and breaking bones.

I cannot walk for a long time. But for now this is what I can see outside my window.

IMG_20180819_075727

 

I hope that for as many heartbreaks and leg breaks that come my way – there is always a window nearby.


 

**Featured Image credits: jeanandre.fr

UP

It has been a somewhat happy morning. In your late 20s, the only monster dread is waking up in the middle of the night and not feeling sleepy afterwards. There’s that precarious window of 5 seconds after you are thrown out of sleep and you are afraid that your mind will now wake up loudly and show image after image of your biggest insecurities. Who needs a nightmare after that?

Even so, sleep devi has been kind. Maybe that’s why the happy itch is back. Yesterday a friend told me about Karunanidhi’s disciplined routine – waking up at 4:30 to write and all. I was supremely disturbed. What the hell am I doing in life?

My students are eating books week after week. I am only eating.

Yesterday was a day of many discoveries. I reread Aunt Julia and felt thunder bolts of love for Pedro Camacho. This morning I read bits of Alain Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel. 

It has left me giddy. I’ve been waiting for the biggest heartbreak of my life to start reading Proust. That kind of defeats the point of reading Proust in the first place, I realise. So today I am happy that the itch is back and I am waiting waiting to read Botton’s book. Maybe after that and after Didion and Eliot – I can think about Proust.

In other news, I wrote a thing about my bleeding, oozing, puss-ing love for 9 songs. You can read it here.

It’s a happy day!

Once Upon a Rainy Mangalore Day

When it rained in Mangalore, amma made us wear raincoats and carry umbrellas but we’d still get wet. One afternoon after school we went looking for a new house in an auto. The broker was on his bike in front of us, his feet slanting upward on both footrests. We followed his yellow raincoat. The huge bungalow we first stopped at had two coconut trees growing out of it. The trees shot upwards from the roof, and looked uneasy like the swords I’d sometimes seen emerge out of Swamiji tongues in Kanyakumari.

I looked at Amma. She squinted at the trees and looked miserable. I looked at the broker. He sighed and started giving the auto driver new directions for a new house.

I wanted to tell him no. I had already imagined spending all my free time under the trees. Never before had life organised itself so beautifully as it did on those house- hunting days where the space of a new home offered dreams of being good girl – set up a solid routine, do homework on time, sleep at 9, wake at 6.

Amma and broker were damaging my creative juices.

The second house was inside a huge compound sharing space with another house. I stepped out of the auto and into a puddle, slowly, deliberately. The water seeped into my socks making it squishy. I walked around carefully listening to each squish.

A girl climbed out of a school van in front of the other house and watched us. I recognized her as a classmate but struggled to remember her name. Amma was quick to notice when we greeted each other shyly. I’d already started day dreaming a routine – this time my new best friend was in all of them.

When I was pulled away from the house, and from her, and thrust into the auto – I was beginning to bawl. Amma patted my back loudly and said that closeness is not ok. It will ruin your life.

***

B.I.N.G.I.N.G

Through the month spent binge-watching House MD, I worried that the irony of losing eyesight from watching a medical show would be too funny.

My eyes are tired now but the head is clearer. It scares me to think of the times when I’d look up from the screen to speak to someone and my eyes would begin watering.

I don’t know what to do with all the sunset that is suddenly falling on my desk now.

But I am glad it’s over. I didn’t know that a big part of binge-watching is also the bleeding hurry to get it over with and move on with life. I will miss listening to the words Tachycardia Lupus CT MRI Cardiomyopathy Cushing’s Vicodin Pithy Psychosis.

Goodbye, House. Thank you for believing that work really is everything. Even if proved otherwise.

house_wallpaper_by_ishtarisimo

A Twitter case of Amul Baby

Image credits: Deccan Chronicle

Have you watched this really cool Simi Garewal interview with Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh that’s more like a PTA meeting? No guesses for who the child is.

It’s like watching tragicomedy. Not because Rishi Kapoor is an *Amul baby (cos who doesn’t know that?) but because it made me wonder about Neetu Singh in the way that I sometimes wonder about my mother and her mother and everyone’s mothers – wouldn’t they all have been better off without marriages and Amul-baby husbands?

Yes yes, their choice, and like Neetu Singh repeatedly says – she has always wanted the life she now has. When Simi Garewal asks her if she could do over her life, would she still marry Rishi Kapoor? Neetu Singh loudly says YES.

But it was still amusing to watch that throughout the show, even though the Amul baby is worse than his twitter self; Neetu Singh is pretty much telling the world ‘listen up peeps don’t take my husband or his tweets seriously cos even I don’t. Plus he’s drunk out of his mind when he’s tweeting’

My favourite part of the interview was when Neetu Singh and Simi Garewal exchange looks over Rishi Kapoor’s horrible parenting skills. Simi Garewal is like that really sweet well-wishing, tch-tch-tching moral science teacher. ‘Please go home and think about what being a father really means to you’, she says.

I remember Neetu Singh as the lovely Salma Ali from Amar Akbar Anthony – the only film after Mr. India which I watched as a child over and over again. Simply because those were the only two video cassettes we had. I liked Parveen Babi the most because she was Christian in the film and back then I was fascinated with everything Christian.

I watched it again today and was smitten by Salma Ali – the doctor who is given one fleeting moment in a hospital scene where she is absorbed in her work despite being wooed by Akbar (Amul Baby) in the same shot.

A nurse comes running to tell her that a patient needs blood urgently. Ali begins to worry, Akbar says he’s leaving and she just brushes him off saying haan haan bye and gets back to brooding. It is a three second shot but delightful.

It is the same energy she brings to Comedy Nights with Kapil where the host asks her what it is like to have married into a khandaan full of super star actors and she says ‘Main bhi toh thi award-winning actress’ (I too was an award-winning actress)

It almost erased some terrible flashbacks about watching her instructing Ranbir Kapoor on Simi Garewal’s show. ‘Women come with either scissors or needle. They either break or make families. Pick a girl with a needle’

Needless to say, no matter what instruments they bring, what can you mend Amul babies with?

*What is an Amul baby?

Watch Dhanush’s VIP.

 

Featured Image credits: Deccan chronicle

Dear Mr Weiner

**Featured Image Credits: Young Writers Society**

 

Dear Mr Weiner

When I think about writers,

I think about you Mr Weiner, from my degree days

you who proudly told everyone –

‘Yoohoo. I am a writer. I write.’

Often you wrote about yourself in third person,

‘But he was different from others. He could write. He could really write and not just string words together.’ (Like I am doing now)

 

When I think about writers, 

I also think about 2 lovely girls

from a class I taught years ago.

How they both hesitated to call themselves writers

even though they wrote like motherfuckers.

So now I want to say to you, Mr Weiner,

‘If at least one inch of your pubic hair can write like those girls, we’ll talk.’

***

**Featured Image Credits: Young Writers Society**

Ram ka kya hoga? Part III of the Dalit Women Speak Out Conference

Premalata is a 23- year-old MBA graduate from Telangana. I met her on Day Two of the Dalit Women Speak Out conference in Pune, 20 Dec 2017.

When I first saw her, she was angrily untangling the beads from her dupatta. She had just ended a very upsetting phone conversation. She snapped the phone shut and jammed it inside her bag. On the other end of the phone, I had heard a man who was persistently asking her where she was.

Poooonaaa, pooonaaa. Pooongaa alla pa, thooo. Poooonaaaa, she’d screamed. After she noticed me, she smiled apologetically and began straightening the creases on her orange Anarkali salwar-kameez.

–          Appa? I asked, pointing to the phone now recovering in her bag. Father?

–          Illa. Mera Maama – Morning se phone karta. No, my uncle. Has been calling since morning.

This girl was my heroine. She’d refused to give the annoying uncle any bhaav, and now she didn’t want to waste her time talking about him.

She saw my open notebook and asked if I was writing about the conference.

Yes, I tell her but I want to write about her. Is that ok?

She giggled and said, “Main itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” But I’m not a big man.

“Main bhi itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” I’m also not a big man.

She smiled and I was distracted by the calm in her eyes. I didn’t know Telugu and she didn’t know English so in our garbled Hindis we continued to talk.

She said she was fighting with her family because they didn’t want her to work. And that she was seeking an NGO’s help to negotiate with her parents.

When she thought she’d said enough she began interviewing me.

–          Tum kya karta? What do you do?

–          Main English teacher. I teach English.

I thought back to what I knew about Telugu and grudgingly arrived at fair-skinned heroes against shiny backdrops of big temples; and bubbly heroines with flowing hair. But I’m wondering what her version of the language is.

So I asked her the most personal, most important question in my life.

Tum picture dekhta? Do you watch films?

She nodded wildly and her eyes looked like they were swallowing me along with the entire room.

–          Tumko heros main kaun pasand? Who is your favourite hero?

–          Ram, she blinked.

–          Kaunsa Ram? Ram Charan Teja? Which Ram?

Cheeee! Her face tightened up with disgust and my eyes widened with surprise.

–          Toh phir kaunsa Ram? Then which Ram?

–          Ek hain Ram karke. Ready main bahut acha acting kiya woh. Ram has done super acting in the film Ready.

I felt slaughtered. I was desperate but equally dreading her answer to my next question.

–          Mahesh Babu pasand? Do you like Mahesh Babu?

 Cheeeee! She squirmed again.

–          Kyuu? Sabko pasand hai na Mahesh Babu? Why? Everyone loves Mahesh Babu no?

–          Agar sabhi log Mahesh Babu ko pasand karenge, toh Ram ka kya hoga? (I don’t want to translate this sentence. English doesn’t deserve it)

My shame shame -puppy shame evaporated because I had fallen in love with her. I was too unsettled to say anything but her eyes were calmer than ever as she stifled her guffaws behind the beady orange dupatta.

Even before I could ask her the next question, she had answered– “Genelia girls main pasand.” In girls, I like Genelia.

And then she blushed like red balloons.

–          Tum idar kaisa aaya, she asked me. How did you come here?

–          Plane.

–          Akela? Alone?

–          Haan.

–          Tum bahut daaare, she said, giving the English word the lift of a plane taking off. And with a thumbs up in my direction, her eyes drank all of us in again.

Premalata gave me more moments to live in than all the waste Telugu friends from college who gave me nothing more than dabba fair heroes to remember them by.

I think of her occasionally and every time I do, I wonder why I didn’t ask to take her picture. Then I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. You can’t trust cameras for moments like these.

As I left the room after saying bye to her that day, I fished my phone out and began looking for Telugu actor Ram. Google showed me pictures of Ram Charan Teja. I rolled my eyes.

How to waste time and other useful lessons

Here’s a list to make myself feel less guilty about waking up very early to do nothing. It’s the Proust Questionnaire –

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Starting the day early

What is your most marked characteristic?
Laughing without intending to

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Saying haha to self-pity

What is your greatest fear?
That my grandmother will lose her memory

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Mickey Mouse

Which living person do you most admire?
Dominique Bretodeau

Who are your heroes in real life?
The women I met at the Dalit Women’s Conference.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Capacity for wasting time

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Capacity for wasting other people’s time

What is your favorite journey?
Science to Arts

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Patience

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
Savarna fuckers, Brahmin bhurjis.

What is your greatest regret?
That for the longest time, I didn’t like myself

What is your current state of mind?
Elaichi

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
Make them Buddhists

What is your most treasured possession?
On most days, the ability to shit well

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Wanting bad things to happen to other people

Where would you like to live?
In an old and crumbling Portuguese home in Goa

What is your favorite occupation?
Popping bubble wrap

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Ability to laugh at men

What is the quality you most like in a man?
Ability to laugh at themselves

What are your favorite names?
Goldie and Dimpy

What is your motto?
Write like a Motherfucker