Happy Teachers’ Day to the woman who fought quietly, and knew that carrying an ‘extra’ saree in her bag was revolution enough. Celebrating this occasion on any other day is reinstating fixation with what my friend calls a ‘Savarna work ethic’ which is to give what’s needed and withhold the most important part of you for yourself – whether it’s time, energy or love – Savarna work ethic runs under the assumption that whatever you are giving to work is somehow ‘more than enough’, everything else is ‘extra’
Reminds me of the sweet, studious, Brahmin girls from school who would never share their notes, and who just had to leave school at exactly 3:00 PM even if there was drama practice, or extra curricular work to do. They ran back home to study and wouldn’t let anything get in the way. It’s powerful in its own right but establishes a sad limitation on how much you are allowed to give (in love and work) – nahi chahiye, beda.
Savitrimai went to work everyday and walked amidst literal name-calling and cow-dung-slinging. People waited outside her house armed with cow-dung to throw at her. She never stopped going, she never stopped working, didn’t even pause to defend herself, or even attack back. She carried an ‘extra’ saree and changed when she got to school. On her way back, she wore the morning saree because they were still standing with cow-dung, waiting for her return. I never get tired of telling this story because it has power and charm and endless lessons on revolution.
Savarna work ethic is sometimes just standing with cow-dung. The answer to that is to keep walking, to keep working and to keep an extra change of clothes in your bag. We need it now, we needed it yesterday, and we need it tomorrow.
At some point in 2015, I became very comfortable with the idea that teaching is an autopilot thing. That it was enough if I had read a text/poem/short-story once – no matter how long ago it was – that it would be enough if I remembered it. Teaching was – more than anything else, remembering. And sometimes only that.
I woke up in 2018 accidentally, when for an Arts and Culture Journalism class, I had to read Pauline Kael again, but this time – I fell for her. I noticed a lot of things that I had barely paid attention to the first time. Her words made me hungry to write like that and I felt very alive. So I spent an hour before class that day drinking pleasure out of her Bonnie and Clyde essay and then making notes on the white board in the small media lab. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and it was a very unusual feeling. It’s sadly the only hour in seven years where I think I actually did well.
The preparation that went into that hour was eerily close to the preparation that went in for a class on Metonymy and Synecdoche three years ago. But that lecture was a disaster even if the pleasure was similar. I had just begun to understand the concepts but not enough to teach them. A lot of things had gone wrong but that hour taught me to measure my own learning before I did anything else with it.
And the Pauline Kael class taught me how to measure my learning. I learnt that in order to know what I was saying, I needed to perform a different kind of remembering – a more reliable kind – something that even students could take pleasure in seeing. This kind of remembering was easier because I only had to figure out what the element of pleasure was but it was also trickier and more difficult because this meant I also had to convince students that this kind of learning was valuable. And it’s only now that I can say – I cannot convince them without knowing enough.
I am paying attention to this because it is distressing to notice that students who are very aware of their learning, whose faces light up when I begin to talk about a poem lose interest because I am unable to go beyond a point. And I want very much to complete that circle of learning for them and that circle of teaching for me – simply because they are interested.
In Seattle, I was a student again- furiously taking notes because I was afraid I would forget something that had made too much sense to me, that if I don’t immediately write it down, it would be lost, and the world would be a distressing place to live in again.
That was how I learnt and now, it’s how I want to teach.
I am beginning to see the 50 mins that I spend in the classroom with students as time I’ll never get back, not even if it’s the same class the next day. I have to give this all I have, no matter how many times I return to it later.
Teaching Creative Writing is becoming more and more challenging. To begin with, I have to get over my own boredom with using old materials. I stick to Deepak Bhat’s Monsoon memories because its lessons are plenty and liberating. And I want to continue sticking to that. But I think I am becoming a little disillusioned with my own comfort with speaking about writing because writing has been the hardest this year, and so speaking about it has been hard too.
The Dalit and Bahujan literature classes were difficult to teach this semester. It kept me on my toes for several reasons. For once, it made me return to Ambedkar every week. And I learnt a lot but had no idea where to put it or how.
And then I also saw that this is a class where I’d have assumed the auto-pilot method to work very well but it’s the only class where an auto-pilot method will never work because it’s difficult to talk about Ambedkar first as a Dalit man, a leader, a political figure and then to make students see the other Ambedkar – the sexy writer. And I can never do this from memory. I can only do it from a place of reverence and playfulness both of which are difficult to produce week after week without having read Ambedkar every day.
This semester, I read Maggie Nelson, Ali Smith, Natalia Ginzburg, and Miranda July but I don’t know what it means if I haven’t felt the desire to take them to classes yet but have enjoyed reading them very much. Maybe this has a lot to do with my realisation that teaching and writing are not on auto-pilot anymore and this scares me but it also makes me feel like an adult with real problems.
I now realise that the only writer I have consistently read over this year is Ambedkar and I am looking forward to approaching him as a creative writing teacher next semester.
As part of the Study of US Institutes (SUSI), teachers from 17 countries were invited to Seattle University to learn more about contemporary American literature. This happened over six weeks, two of which were spent on study tours in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. In DC, we were introduced to a poet and a musician and here’s a little something about the evening spent with them.
Samuel Miranda and Pepe Gonzalez are full of love. One Friday evening in DC, we walked with them into American Poetry Museum. It was a small, bright room with books, and art work all around. On a table by the entrance there was an old typewriter sitting quietly.
I didn’t know much about Sam and Pepe except that they both had the kindest smiles. Earlier that evening when they had introduced themselves to us so happily, you could tell they were the kind of people around whom it’d be difficult to remain unhappy, bored or tired. Exactly the kind of people the world needs more and more, especially today.
Sam read out poems from his book ‘We is’ while Pepe played the double bass. It was my first time seeing–listening to poetry being accompanied by music or was it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. Because on stage his poem held hands with his music and I couldn’t tell what was feeding what but it grew together.
Sam asked, ‘How many of you have known and lost students to bullets?’ and some of us raised our hands. I felt a chill. I didn’t have to look around to know that enough of us had lost students to guns. He read out a poem called Traffic Light Shoot-Out.
“The bicycle’s hooded rider
was a stranger. A body. A corpse.
A corpse I knew
when it still had breath”
Sam read his poems with an intensity and calm that closed old wounds and opened new ones. Pepe smiled with his eyes. I have never seen a musician make so much eye contact with his smile. There was something oddly calm and powerful happening in the room. Most of us couldn’t hold back our tears, some wept openly, some swallowed painfully, some watched Prof C crying and broke down. I withdrew deeper into the folds of my dress and felt smaller than I ever have.
“We is not the singular
dotted i, black figure against
… We is the traffic
rushing past the living
and the dead
forgetting to write our songs down
breathe into Chinese medicine bottles
so we can heal the wounds
of our entrances and exits…”
When the stage was open for us, I didn’t move. I have never been one to volunteer to do anything. But something in me had moved enough to want to share with them all my grandmother’s mad stories, and the stories of the women I have known and loved. And so I did. I told them about Mouma’s magic blouse, about the woman who challenged power by refusing to cut her hair, about how she hired people to stand on top of stools to pour water down her long, long, hair. And about the woman who rubbed wild flowers on her body early in the morning so she could hide the smell that disgusted those who refused to give her tea.
When we reached the end, evening had become night and we had been vulnerable with each other in the way only citizens whose countries are vicious can be. We had exchanged fears, stories, and histories and as we hugged each other — I wondered if the power-mongers lurking on the outside of poetry in their country, and mine would continue to be so hateful if they knew how much love there was inside. But maybe I was being too ambitious.
I let myself be dissolved in the moment and hugged them all openly.
This morning, I thought of that moment and was suddenly reminded of love – once again – of how much love we are capable of and how often we forget to remind ourselves of this.
Why are you writing so many ‘Dalit- Dalit’ things these days?
While “I’ll write what I want” is generally a good response to stick with– I’m going to explain this to you with love, (because you seem like you have the potential to be a better person) and also with swalpa sarcasm (because I cannot able to control)
See for the longest time no? I had no idea why people were behaving the way they did with me:
why their tone changed from respectful (while talking to someone standing right next to me) to patronizing (the moment they noticed me)
why they thought that people were just being polite to me when they said they liked my blog (since there’s no possible way my blog could be nice)
why they were obsessed with how I ‘got to’ hang out with good looking intellectual people since obviously I don’t have the credentials to hang out with good-looking intellectual people at K or anywhere else
why they thought that the only way I was getting published was because people were doing me favors
why Savarna students thought/and continue to think that they have absolutely nothing to learn from me (this is getting too boring to deal with. I mean swalpa originality should be there even in Savarna-ness no? Too much to ask?)
why they thought it’s ok to tell me that they ‘don’t mind’ editing my writing (even if they don’t have the experience with either editing or writing) – even if they are just a Brahmin engineer with good English and a better internet connection.
It didn’t occur to me then to say fuck off. I thought they were right. So I spent some time doubting myself – maybe I really hadn’t earned my NET, maybe I really am not qualified to teach, maybe I’ll never be a good writer.
All of this was laid to rest when a friend made me see caste in all of this. After that I couldn’t see it any other way.
When Marquez read the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he fell off the bed. He didn’t know that people were allowed to lie in stories. AM says that that moment was as though someone had given Marquez permission to write.
AM himself has been the biggest permission to me – to stop whining and start writing.
When this permission appeared, my relationship with writing changed. Until that point and sometimes even now, writing was torture because my sentences didn’t sound beautiful, my control over structure was a useless battle, and the Savarna reader in my head wouldn’t stop shrugging, grunting and yawning.
I have often told Christina that reading her feels like a hundred dams are breaking inside me. It’s because reading her feels like permission to shoot the Savarna reader in my head. After the shots were fired, my writing relaxed. It took a deep breath and decided that it just has to write.
So, dear friend – when I finally feel like I have the permission to write, why won’t I? It’s definitely not new. I have been writing ‘Dalit-Dalit’ things for sometime now. Read my old blog-posts if you haven’t already 🙂
2. Will you ever write about ‘normal things’?
It won’t seem normal enough to you because for you – entitlement is probably normal.
Lol. Ok see. I was on a panel earlier this year – it was about Savarna control over documentaries. There were a bunch of snooty Savarna peeps who sat in the first few rows and rolled their eyes because apparently the panel was about a “serious topic” and I was not being serious or political enough.
When I asked the panelists if they thought that being Dalit meant that we could only write about political things that concern Dalits — Thank god for Gee, because he said – “I want to see a Dalit writer write about romance and food. I want to see a Dalit director make horror films”
If only we had some of my (DBA) people in the audience, I’m sure there would have been claps and hoots and whistles and pelvic thrusts (I am thinking about my lovely sisters from the writing workshop here)
So basically – I want to write about everything. I want to write about farmers, I want to write about Mayawati, I want to write about Ranveer Singh, I want to write about Joan Didion, I want to write about Siddalingaiah, I want to write about Koffee with Karan, I want to write about Bollywood films and weddings, I want to write about fashion, travel, food, cows, and birds. I want to see my short stories get published in Caravan, Round Table, Dalit Camera, Granta, fucking New Yorker even. Because I want to be a good writer. Because I don’t want to stop learning, ever. Ever.
3. How can you write about Koffee with Karan and about being Dalit at the same time?
Arre. Let me ask you a question – how many Dalit people do you know? And how many Dalit writers do you know who write about popular culture?
Don’t Dalit people watch TV? Shouldn’t they also watch Koffee with Karan like you secretly do (under the covers)? Don’t Dalit people go to pubs? Don’t we like drinking? Don’t we like wearing nice clothes?
And please don’t give me this political-volitical nonsense. I have seen enough Savarna boys in college who suddenly become Angry Savarna Boys. Then they obviously read Das Kapital in sports fields (because everywhere else is too mainstream), then they talk about philosophy and Marx — only to go get an MA and join some Infosys or Accenture.
So, excuse me for not taking you seriously.
4. So what is the point of all this?
Basically it’s this – Ambedkar once told me to tell you – I can’t stop being Dalit just because you are casteless, macha. So stop being an ass.
I don’t remember her name and this makes me feel guilty. Because that was one of the first few things I’d learnt as a teacher. AM had told me – Always learn their names. Don’t mark attendance by calling out numbers. In a system that reduces students to numbers, making the effort to learn and remember their names is a way of showing kindness. And I had failed.
She was a science student who was in a General English class I had taught long ago. I didn’t remember her although her face was familiar. She wanted help with her term paper. I spoke to her about research for a while and she said she’d come back the next day with some writing.
She came promptly the next day. I was in a biting hurry to prepare for a class and became terribly impatient with my feedback to her writing. She sensed this and said she’d come back another day. I said ok and went back to my notes. I forgot about her after my class, and surrendered to the general blurriness of the day. A little after lunch, I went to the filter to get water, and found her sitting on the ledge, eating lunch alone.
She said, ‘No, my friends eat in the canteen’ when I asked her why she was eating by herself. Quickly she returned to her Puliyogre and I felt stupid asking her that. At any given point in college – there are many students who eat their lunch alone. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I had done something to contribute to her loneliness in particular. It seemed like no ordinary moment. Something was happening. Without meaning to, the girl had shown me my impatience. I called her back in and we spoke about her term paper.
Her mother and father worked as tailors in Marathahalli. She had an older brother in Chennai who also worked. She left home at 7 every morning, changed two-three buses to get to college and returned at 6 in the evening to take math tuition for neighbour kids. She said it paid enough to manage extra college expenses.
I wasn’t sure what to say next. But she helped. She only wanted to get her term paper out of the way so she could get back to her life. Months later she came to get my signature. I never saw her after that.
That was a long while ago and I return to that moment often. It made me see how teachers have an odd power in contributing to the loneliness of students that is often imposed by institutions. It made me see how small kindnesses can go a long way in making some of this loneliness go away. Much of the business of being a teacher today is about this.
In the month of May this year, I was assigned admission duty. I was in charge of verifying documents before sending the student and parents to the interview round. I sort of began to enjoy this. I learnt to observe people. They behaved like their surnames. What I was seeing before me was what I had read about in Ambedkar’s writings.
Sometimes heavy surnames meant that the fathers were answering all the questions I had asked their daughters, while their mothers pointedly sat a little away from the whole process. Sometimes it meant that fathers were the ones asking me questions – ‘What guarantee can you give me that if I send my son here, he will get a good MNC job later?’
It also meant that I got to see the other side of the structure – what do those who don’t have surname power do?
In the afternoon I saw a frail looking girl and her father walking towards me slowly. They looked frightened and it seemed as though they were expecting to be asked to leave. They stared at me when I smiled at them and weren’t sure if they could sit down, even after the attender and I told them to please sit.
The girl sat and pulled her father by the elbow — signalling to him that it was ok to sit. I asked for her documents and knew that she was SC. She wants to study history she said. Throughout our conversation, her father appeared very uncomfortable. His focus was on impending danger – that numbness in teeth we sometimes feel right before we crash. Almost as if he was sure something wrong was going to happen any moment now. His hands shivered when the girl showed him where to sign on the application form. Still trembling, he wrote his name down in block letters.
It wasn’t hard to guess why they were frightened or what their prior experiences with institutions were like. It’s baffling no? That to some institutions are just buildings. And to others, it’s a battleground. At least battlegrounds offer the impression of an equal fight. This was prison.
I wonder why the science girl approached me in the first place. Maybe no one else took her in, maybe she was less afraid of coming to me, or maybe something in the General English classes gave her the impression that she could come to me. Either way, I learnt more from her than she did from me.
Often among students, the assumption is that the General English classes are spaces to unwind, something they needn’t take very seriously – especially since it is not their core subject. And this is not a problem. Students do need to unwind and if classroom spaces are offering them that, then good.
But beyond the unwinding or the general whining about these classes, it is ultimately a student like that science girl who seems to really get the point behind GE classes. Whether it is a student like Deepak Bhat who sat in the last bench and inspired this blog post, and managed to give a whole new direction to teachers like me. Or like Sevanthi Murugaiyyan who took her life in 2016 – it is the unprivileged who value learning more than the privileged.
Probably because they recognize love and mercy much more naturally than those who spread hate. And only the privileged have the energy to hate.
When there is too much privilege in the classroom and too much hate in the country, these lines bring me a sense of direction:
The abstract mercy of our system is Reservation, yes. And it is also a classroom space where sometimes a student who never spoke in school finds the courage to speak, it’s also a syllabus that opens up a whole new world to a student who fought with his parents in Bihar, dropped out of engineering, and came all the way to Bangalore to study Journalism.
And for this, I am grateful.
Featured Image Credits: John Ryle A visit to the Panopticon
This has been a week full of Magic. I’d like to show you some of this but I’m afraid you won’t like it very much. It’s heavy like a tall glass and salty like bloody Mary, and like both, it might tear the corners of your lips.
when i’d watched The Prestige long ago, i was only a girl in love, nothing but a girl in love. maybe some days it’s enough to be only a girl in love and nothing but a girl in love. Not today.
i watched the film again last Saturday, i watched it like a teacher. is a teacher not in love? yes she is: some days, every day, most days. Some days i fall in love like a healing wound – slowly at first, and then in big quick gulps. everyday i fall in love like shah rukh khan – kisi ke baal ache hai, kisi ke hont. On most days i fall in love like I have never fallen in love before – like magic, like disappearing rabbits, like orange color rain.
i watched the film like i was watching someone teach me something in a classroom. someone teaching me to perform. perform to teach. because teaching, like magic, is performance – it’s where i have to make something appear out of nothing.
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”
teaching is getting them to see the magic that i have seen – in other people’s worlds, words, and works. some days this magic leaves me dizzy.
in the same way i was dizzy to discover the old Chinese man in The Prestige who sacrificed being able to walk properly to be able to perform magic. in the same way i was dizzy to read Pauline Kael who takes all her images and squeezes them inside out until words started appearing. in the same way i was dizzy when i discovered how endearingly Joan Didion wrote and taught the world how to make writing a part of your body – so much so that i now feel like all my words belong to her because she knows their weight more than I do.
when i am reading, i am sometimes confronted with a happiness that is far too big for me to hold. like Salvador’s hundred balloons of happiness, like the smile between Dhanush’s tragedy and Dhanush’s dance, like the smell of hot cardamom chai on my fingers, like the fullness of evenings in the department where we all sit and talk and laugh, like watching students be absorbed in their work, like i have the key to doors that open Macondo, Naples, New York, Bombay, and Mangalore.
it’s a gift. it’s a curse. it makes teaching exciting. it makes me tired when i’m unable to recreate the same magic for students in the classroom – what i know i have felt in the bones, between the folds in my body where hunger is a disappearing rabbit in a black hat.
Featured Image Credits: Key of Magic by Hartwig HKD via Flickr