February Fever

The morning-afters are something else. Your body doesn’t return to you for days, it’s still with them, in the tightness of their arms, and in the blurring outline of your desire and theirs.

This morning, my face towards the sky, my back on the floor, I watched a hawk (eagle?) flying. It was high enough for me to want to imagine what it sees from up there — the triangle of terraces, the straightness of pipes, the black opaqueness of water tanks, the rough crookedness of roads, and low enough for me to notice the lazy flap of wings it brought every 30 seconds. Was one casual flap enough to sustain flying for 30 seconds? I watched until it reached the edge of my vision and then looked straight up again to find 3 more hawks (eagles?)

In my dream this morning, I saw an open tap next to my bed. If only it had drinking water, I thought – I’d never have to worry about going to the kitchen six times a day.

It’s January February March and already I have seen versions of myself that make me drop things with joy, bring aches to parts of my body that I can only reach when I am sitting a certain way, do nothing but sit on my purple sofa and read endlessly.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is calling.

reckless

Today, I felt recklessly free, and therefore pleased.

It began last evening when I made uppitu without any instructions hissed behind my shoulder. It was not bad at all. This morning, I made tea after class, and as I was taking it to my room, I was very aware of feeling absolutely at ease with myself. This hasn’t happened in a long time. I don’t remember if this has ever happened before. Never been home alone like this and I almost can’t seem to contain how happy it makes me.

Then I read this essay and felt my neck become cool as if someone was blowing into it to wake me up gently from a most wonderful sleep. I picked up Mrs. Dalloway soon after because reading that essay made me want to feel read by the book. Then I listened to this song by Lucinda Williams and felt cheated for not having known about her before.

With Lucinda Williams on loop, I read this essay on Hemingway by Lillian Ross. These lines — He called Dawn Powell a wonderful writer who “has everything that Dotty Parker is supposed to have and is not tear-stained.”  made me smile as if Dawn Powell was my baby.

Read Dawn Powell in the evening and felt reassured. Two gems: ‘Nothing or nobody outside yourself should be so important’ and ‘The one thing I will work myself to death for is the protection of my own laziness’

Here’s another song by Lucinda darling – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvzJ39m4vsA&ab_channel=moliken3

THE PROF. BARBRA NAIDU PRIZE FOR THE PERSONAL ESSAY 2021 – BREAKING AWAY

Announcing the ninth edition of The Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay. The theme for this year is Breaking Away. Here is a little something on how I understand it.

I often dream that I’m running a relay race. The audience is a stadium full of people cheering for me, and a small yawn of people rolling eyes. That’s their only job — both in my dream, and in their life. In the beginning, I ran against boys who were annoying classmates, and when it no longer thrilled me, I ran against annoying boys I was teaching. A pataki female student and I are usually up against this boy and his friend. When pataki gives me the baton, I run with grit in my teeth, calves, and veins. The boy is far ahead of me and going to win. My mind speeds this part along because a) I am not a runner and b) within seconds, I am anyway already running next to him. At this point, the audience erupts in cheers. Their faces are indignant with vengeance on my behalf. I don’t know what the yawn of people look like because nobody cares about them. My own face is part grit- part replaying every humiliating account from my teaching life. I break away from the boy in the slowest way possible and when I cross the finish line, everything goes black and I am panting a lot but mostly dying.

I didn’t know this then but what I was imagining and getting thrills from is a moment called ‘breaking away’. Like breaking away from a group you no longer believe in — or from someone you used to be held captive to — or from a pack when you are racing and getting closer to the finish line. The moment is charged with the erotics of being free.

Sometimes it’s not easy to see the things that bind us to people. We believe we are free because we seem to walk just fine when the leash is long enough. Nothing is holding us back because whatever is holding us back is following us so closely, they don’t need to hold us back, and we don’t need to feel held back.

That’s why breaking away is so glorious. Suddenly there’s more of you for yourself.

What I like most about breaking away is that there is no time to self-congratulate or self-pity. It’s an extremely short-lived moment — there now, gone next. Perhaps it’s a good thing that these moments don’t come with pause buttons. What do we expect to find there anyway?

When I first heard of breaking away, I thought it was breaking up. The difference, as I understand it now was made clear by Kate Winslet’s face in ‘The Holiday’. After being in love with a jerk for over three years, she finds gumption one evening to break away.

In the moment that I am talking about, they’ve already broken up with each other multiple times but he keeps coming back to see if she’s still there and leaves when he is convinced that she is. It’s probably because breaking up with someone still means it’s with. Breaking away, on the other hand is always from someone or something. The only way to go after breaking away is forward. Kate Winslet’s face sees this, understands this, and we get to watch it dawn on her.

When I fantasise about breaking away these days, it’s not a race anymore, it’s a happy dance and no one is around to cheer, frown or roll eyes.

What is your breaking away story?

Remembering to Read

This morning, on the way to SLV to pick up breakfast – a security guard, in his 70s, sitting on a plastic chair outside an ATM with a pen and a Kannada newspaper, solving crossword. A little ahead, another oldish man with a shovel, uprooting a small plant by the compound of his house. He was wearing a white baniyan and panche.

Pretend it’s a city: have a list of books and films I must run to. Days are happier when I remember to remember that there is a woman named Fran Lebowitz who lives the way she wants to, reads, smokes, eats, walks, and goes back to live in her apartment alone– and no man no woman no child no parent can ever tell her anything. I am most curious about her love life, her sex life. But she’s given me so much that the other stuff, though I want to know everything about her — can never compete with how she makes it possible for me to believe that I can live however I want to, that I am young to not have to work hard to feel alive. That anything I’ll ever need is already with me, that I can move to NYC and live there forever (bring money, she says but – lol)

I spent all of this week crying. I cried in lifts and restrooms, at home, and at work, while riding. I don’t want to be that way ever again. I like to believe that I am not myself when I am not reading women. The months I spent in lockdown reading Toni Morrison, Marieke Lucas, Makenna Goodman, Sheila Heti, and Dawn Powell were the best days of my life. Nothing can ever come close to the intimacy I share with a woman whose work I’ve just begun to discover and rediscover. My problem is that I give too much attention to my life. I must remember everyday what Toni Morrison said: “I write because otherwise I would be stuck with life” and what Fran Lebowitz said, “Reading is better than life”

Reading is real, supremely more real than anything else I’ve ever known. More real than even perhaps, writing.

Mouma

There is so much of hers I should’ve asked to keep. Her vibhooti-smelling blouses, her saris smelling of her, her creams and powder, her flowers.

I don’t know where I’ll find it in me to continue writing, as if nothing’s happened.

I’ll remember her for many, many things.

But today, I am only thinking of how she clung to me and wept, when she said bye and when she said hi – strongly, and weakly. Her arms – always smelling of vibhooti.

Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, and he’ll show you what freedom is

This essay was first published on Huff Post India (30 Oct 2020). Temporarily posting it here until it finds a new home.

When we first moved to Basavanagudi in Bangalore, a relative told Appa he should chop the top half of the Tabebuia tree growing in front of our house. He said that a tree growing taller than your house was bad luck, it would stunt your prosperity. Of course, that same person also told Appa not to let daughters sleep under vaulted ceilings because it made them ambitious and they would never get married. Appa studied the ceiling and the tree with caution. Amma made a fuss, not on behalf of my ambitions but because she had put her life on hold to build this house. The vaulted ceiling was her final touch. I have now spent 13 years under it and for 13 years no matter where I was in life and how many ambitions I had and how often they cut me, the Tabebuia tree dropped pink flowers every February.

During the pandemic, I took to spending hours on the terrace under the shade of the Tabebuia tree, reading, watering plants, and listening to short stories by women. Over Jamaica Kincaid’s words (‘Figures in the Distance’) in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s voice one evening, I discovered rows of sugary dust left behind by ants on a pear leaf. I scraped some out, surprised when they made my fingers sticky. Kincaid’s narrator was saying that as a child, she was convinced that only people she didn’t know died. I think back to the time my grandfather died; how his body had grown smaller in death and was being bathed under the Tabebuia tree even as Brahmin neighbors retreated into their homes, repulsed by the sight of bare-chested, thread-less Dalit men walking around. I think back more recently to the time my oldest uncle died, looking just as his father had, his small body cradled by the man bathing him.

I was brought back to the story when Adichie whispered “We were afraid of the dead because we never could tell when they might show up again” Her dipping voice both covering and revealing the child narrator’s goosebumps. I tightened my grip on the water pipe to manage the urge to highlight that line, as if I was reading it off a kindle, off a mobile screen, copying those lines to later paste and post on twitter, an invitation for others to read, for me to remember weeks or months later when I’m senselessly scrolling down to see if there’s anything I’ve said in excess, anything that must be uncurated. There are 60 potted plants on the terrace although Appa says 58 because two are succulents and he doesn’t think of them as real plants. I stopped arguing with him after he began using them as weights for the plate of bird grain. Two weeks into the lockdown, Appa began coming up to the terrace only to feed the birds. For a while, he used to stop at the plants, considering them, cursing them when they weren’t growing, and then ignoring them entirely when he discovered birds because they showed him they remembered him.

At home, there were varying opinions about how often plants must be watered. Appa said weekly, my sister said once in three days. I saw logic
in both but selfishly continued watering them every day because in the 30 minutes that it took to water the plants, I could listen to stories without interruption, where even I couldn’t interrupt myself. And what is a short story if not an interruption, a sudden, smallish hole to free-fall into? My hands were tied, so were my ears. All I could do was shut up, water the plants, and listen to the story.  One morning, Appa played a YouTube tutorial video for the confused koel sitting on the Tabebuia tree. He was teaching it how to sing, not croak. “Listen to how the birds do it here, you are not doing it properly,” he was instructing it. We told him not to birdsplain but neither the koel nor he was interested in our opinion. Amma left him alone and took to watching the parrots that came in clouds, sat a while, and then fluttered away, early in the mornings. “I saw 50 parrots today,” she told anyone who called her on the phone.

Every year during Hiriyar Habba, we remember our dead elders. There’s mutton, egg, and chicken on a plantain leaf, a bundle of beedis sticking
out of a small glass, and bottles of cheap whiskey, all arranged neatly in front of stern, black and white pictures of Ajja and Doddappa. The meat
on the plantain leaf is then eaten by the oldest members of the family. This year though, instead of eating them, Appa stood on the terrace holding mutton pieces, waving them at the hawks that swooped down and grabbed what they could. One of the hawks lost its grip on a piece and it fell right into our neighbors’ compound. Appa’s eyes widened with delight, although a familiar, muted fear crept in between his eyebrows. Later that day, there was outrage in the neighbor’s house, and curses that fell on our caste while Appa snorted lazily and Amma glared at no one.

Three months ago, the neighbors were flying kites and one morning I saw blue threads hanging uselessly from the Tabebuia tree. Some days later,
Appa rescued a pigeon struggling to free itself from one of those threads. Streaked with blood, it was caught in the pigeon’s wings and lodged deep inside the skin, making several cuts every time it tried to get away. Appa held the bird in his left hand in that gentle way that might look rudely firm to an untrained eye. I kept wondering if he’d hurt the pigeon more in the process or if the pigeon would turn around and bite him but Appa was deft with the scissors, making one quick cut after another. When the last loop had been cut, he freed the bird and it flew away with a flutter, making Appa laugh.

Our house and its Tabebuia tree are flanked by houses that wear threads of a different kind. In the 13 years that we’ve lived here, our neighbors have only remained neighbors, never becoming anything more, anything less. During the lockdown, I often see Appa standing by the window, watching the neighbors every time they gather near the katte in the morning to read newspapers, laugh, and talk. I wonder if he ever desired that kind of companionship but then I see him with his pigeons and his hawks and his crows and I have an answer. I think back to the time when our neighbor stopped stealing our milk packet after she discovered its Dalitness, and how since then, Appa stands defiantly by the door, publicly eavesdropping on every loud, private quarrel between her and her son. I think of the privacy he gives birds when they eat. How he stands behind the door discreetly, and watches them, smiling like a man who has just learnt how to fly. I am glad that the trees and birds here are more ours than Basavanagudi and its people. Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, and he’ll show you what freedom is like no one else can, regardless of what colour the thread is or how long.

How to take it back

“Our surest way of disappointing him will be to ask him nothing about it” said Elizabeth Bennet to Caroline Bingley.

There is truth to this.

Don’t ask them questions

— any kind of questions, especially ones that make you feel most naked.

Especially if them is a him.

Take that affection and put it in plants.

At least, they will grow –

even fucking succulents – who are as dramatic

as dramatic can be

will return more affection.

then take that affection and put it into making a nice reading corner for yourself. Preferably where there is light and water to drink. Sit here every morning and think about life on this purple sofa next to the window and think, and ask — and really ask yourself – is there anywhere else you would rather be?