Meta is 8-years-old❤️
Here are some thoughts after 2 days.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of energy and education it takes to recognize when you are being humiliated. I don’t have very many feelings about Kumbalangi Nights but a scene I find myself returning to over and over again is the hair salon one in the film. It’s an eerily familiar scene – it shows you how without your knowledge or consent, you become trapped in a conversation with people who smile and ‘know’ things about you – things like your ability, qualification, merit, and caste.
A verdict is passed – if you disagree with them, they will look at you like you’re crazy. But of course, it is done with so much poise and dignity that you are bound to ask yourself if you imagined their bad behavior, if it’s even possible that someone who was kind enough to give you time and smile at you can have evil thoughts. For those of you who haven’t watched the film, you just need to revisit a scene from your everyday life where you’ve had to confront the hollow of powerlessness you feel in your stomach when someone with little to no authority seems to derive another kind of ‘more important’ authority from elsewhere. And indeed – it’s why they know they can get away with anything – they are safe in that authority, protected by a sense of knowing what to say when, knowing when they are being humiliated so they are always ready to give it back to you. What is this authority and where do they get it from? Caste.
I am most curious about how it meanders through at places of work. When you don’t know you are being humiliated, how do you defend yourself? Not that knowing you are being humiliated is any kind of a blessing. But how is it possible to work if you are defending it all the time? Where must one get the energy to do this everyday? These are some questions I have been obsessed with year after year.
February is perhaps the only month when I temporarily suspend these questions. It’s because February is the only month in the year when I work most with students. And because these are students who come to February and its synonym – Meta with the same kind of madness that I do, there isn’t much room for humiliation of that kind.
This year, Meta began for me when Alung Inpuihrwan, our student from Manipur sang Raghu Dixit’s ‘Munjane Manjalli’ at the inauguration. He owned the song in a way that I haven’t seen anybody own anything in a long time. When I think of how those with power in the country and elsewhere are swallowing every little space that belongs to students, I want to think of Alung who stood under the banyan tree, and sang in a language that he made his by putting into it every bit of music he could gather from his stomach. Even if this moment was later hijacked by organisational hiccups, Alung’s song is stamped in my memory.
At the end of Day one, it struck me that Meta’s tragedy is that it is so big in our imaginations that it doesn’t register simple realities like spaces suddenly becoming unavailable. It’s also somewhat of its silly charm that despite this, it will continue to produce moments, and give us invitations to look at students differently – which is what we need now more than ever.
This was written on 6 Feb 2020. Part two will be up soon.
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
The Dalit Women’s Conference was liberating on many levels, mostly because I got to meet some fab women. This is a small account of the writing workshop I conducted in some very questionable Hindi on 19 Dec 2017.
The first thing I notice is that all my ten students are older than me. The little Hindi that I know gives haath and I begin stammering. In the second row, there are three middle-aged women who each have the sternness of my high-school history teacher.
The two oldest women in the group – Jamnadevi (62) and Asha (56) sit in the first row. Every time they smile, the liquid in their eyes glimmers in an alert way.
I fumble with words the first few minutes. I forget if Likhna and Lekhan mean the same thing. I’m not sure if I should rely on the same examples I use in the English-speaking classroom.
But what great sense does talking about writing make in an English-speaking classroom that I should worry about it not making sense in a Hindi classroom?
Some are unconvinced when I say that born-talent is bullshit, that writing is practice. I begin to worry that I’m making no sense at this point because a woman from the second row says – ‘Lekin humko technique malum nahi hain na? Toh kaise likhe?’ But we don’t know the technique. How do we write?
I wonder if should mention Marquez here and feel somewhat hopeful.
I tell them how he taught himself to write through the stories his grandmother told him. How she once told him that every Sunday an electrician would come home to fix things and when he left, the house would be filled with butterflies.
But Marquez knew that if he were to write about butterflies coming out of a room – nobody would believe it. So he borrowed his grandmother’s stone face to tell stories. He also added that they will believe him if he said yellow butterflies. His funda was simple – you want to write? Begin with the stories that you know. Regardless of how crazy they may seem.
The history teachers nod but are still suspicious. Jamnadevi and Asha are bowled over by the yellow butterflies and their smiles are the loudest.
Kisi ek kamre ke bare main likhiye jo aap kabhi bhool nahi payenge. Write about a room that you’ll never forget.
I wait quietly when they begin writing. I imagine what it must be like to touch the greying head tops of Jamnadevi and Asha. It could be hot, it could be cold.
When Asha begins to read, everybody looks at her– “Neele asmaan ke rang ki deeware thi us ghar main. Kone main ek bada kutiya rakha hua tha”
That house had sky-blue walls and in the corner of the house there was a big grinding stone.
When she says neele asmaan, the other women around her nod and she picks up.
When she is describing her mother’s hands and how she’d spend hours tracing them with her index finger, she breaks down.
– Aur nahi pada jata. I cannot read more.
She takes the ends of her white dupatta, removes her glasses and dabs hers eyes with them.
Jamnadevi who is sitting next to her doesn’t register any of this. She is almost smiling as she begins. She describes the only cot in her house on which, she says – her father taught her ganith (Math) and her mother combed her hair.
There was a small Ponds dabba near the window. We’d try as much as we could to make it last a year and then when it got over, granny would fill it with water so we could have Ponds scent. Even today the smell of Ponds reminds me of my grandmother very much.
I stood there beaming like a useless buffoon. All these women were better storytellers than I could ever hope to be. Every single person. I didn’t really have to do anything. Whether or not I did a good job, we had all agreed vehemently that we could not allow anybody else to tell our stories. Our stories are ours.
When Jamnadevi finished reading, she too breaks down.
The two girls sitting behind her tell me they don’t want to read their stories out because they don’t think it’s as good as Jamnadevi’s.
At this Jamnadevi giggles.
When I think about my experiences as a teacher in an English-speaking classroom, I think about how vulnerable knowing or not knowing a language can make one feel in relation to those that have language, power, and knowledge. I think about how I sometimes feel the need to hide my lack of good English. Then I think about all these women and wonder if I need to hide. They brought all their stories together to the classroom that day – Englishlessly. These were powerful stories rendered broken by unseen violence – the kind that is not easy to protest openly. And when they read out their stories, we didn’t know it then, but we were building our own histories with no help from anyone.
The idea all along was to live castelessly. My father and mother did it well. The last time I saw them hassled was when we lived in an apartment in Basavanagudi and the man upstairs did jasoosi, found out we were Dalit and started making a fuss. First he had full respect for dad’s position in the government. Sir! Sir! He’d say every time he saw him. Then the ‘Sir’ went off. The first thing to go when people ‘find’ you out is respect. The second is conversation. He stopped talking to my dad and began talking to dad’s office car driver.
But Noorullah loved my dad. Dad still finds it very puzzling that Muslim men have the greatest love for him. Noorullah didn’t tolerate that man’s banter. Once he came to chat with Noorullah about dad’s income and if reservation was going to take care of his pension as well. I am told that Noorullah attacked the man with a newspaper and chased him up the stairs.
After a while, my parents thought it best to leave that house and go elsewhere. Amma was heartbroken. She had built it – brick by brick. Right from the colour of the walls to the spoon in the kitchen – amma had given the house more than two years of her life. It was our first ‘own’ house, our first ‘non-rented’ house and that too in Bangalore. Wherever we were before this, we had always lived in rented houses and amma had hated it. She was tired of the agarbattis and the dhoops that had to be lit every time she made fish or chicken. She was tired of being asked what caste we belonged to before we were even given a tour of the house.
Maybe they still experience caste in small shocks today but because they have seen so much worse, they just laugh it off and ignore it.
This should have been my first lesson.
Today dad keeps having WhatsApp fights with people who are anti-reservation. When Tina Dabi topped IAS, it bothered many people and they sent shit forwards to him. Dad would sit and compose long messages to shut them up. They all began the same way – Mr so and so. I think you are wrong because –
He does the same thing even when he posts his Islamophobia ridden and anti-Tamil forwards but that’s another story and another tragedy altogether. I think he has figured out that the country is so stupid and so beyond help that the only way to gain respect, especially if you are Dalit is by behaving like a Brahmin or at least by trying to become like one.
Very early in school, it became clear to me that there was something wrong with me. I stood before the mirror every day of my school life trying to figure out what it was. One day it was the gap between my teeth. Another day, it was the dullness under my eyes, the paleness of my skin, the thinness of my hair, the roundness of my nose. The day after that it was my weakness in math and science. And the next day it was a smell that followed me everywhere I went. I stopped eating egg.
But I couldn’t find out what it was and gave up. I did what I had seen my mother sometimes do. She’d make friends to learn the secrets of the trade, as it were – to be accepted, to be liked. So to forget my own discomfort with myself, I craved friendships that seemed to be in excess for other people everywhere. Girls and boys who lived next-door to each other, who would walk to school together, eat lunch together.
Years later when I will read Elena Ferrante, some bits of my caste ridden childhood will begin to make sense to me. I understood the violence in those books because that was caste in my world. This is probably why my students find it hard to relate to the book, to me – because I keep talking about experiences that were/are alien to them.
In Belgaum where I studied for a year, neighbour aunties would pull their daughters out of our house exactly at 5 to say ‘Abhyas maadbeku. Time aaytu’
I thought Abhyas was some karate class they went to. My mother and I realised much later that Abhyas meant practice, study. Everywhere we looked, parents were training their children to be competitive adults – to get them ready to take over the world.
It must have been daunting for my mother to prepare her children in a city where everyone was fast, everyone was modern, where Merit sat like a Brahmin God — that visible form that we could see but not touch. Like kaig sikkidru baig sigolla. The proverbial distance between the cup and the lips.
We were put in good schools but beyond that these other girls had something that my mother knew she couldn’t give us because she didn’t know what, she didn’t know how. But she did something. She did what other mothers were doing. She took us to music classes, dance classes and there she figured, we will learn something. But did we?
The music classes were amusing. The children there seemed to know everything there was to know already. So there was no learning happening. There was practice happening. And then one day the music master played some tune on his harmonium and asked us to recognise it. Yeh raga cha naav kai, he sang to us. My sister told him her name. He stared, gulped air and moved on. So did we.
We didn’t go back after that.
How was my mother to prepare us for this battle without right genes and pure blood? It must have been a lonely time and lonelier world. This was a battle she was not ready for. Dad kept getting transferred so for the longest time she fought this alone.
This is what some of you would call cultural capital. And some of you would call Merit.
What does this mean in our lives but? How to define this invisible code?
It was that neat handwriting in which studious Brahmin girls wrote in their hardbound books, which some of us could never touch. It went from their hands and into the hands of others deserving and then into their bags. It was like a secret document that only some had access to.
It was the look of utter disgust on the faces of these girls when I asked them on the morning of some exam – can you please explain this theorem? And then they explained the same with pleasing smiles when some of their own asked them the same question.
It was the neat partition of their oiled hair, the ability to sit in perfect padmasana during tuitions, the glow of their skin, and the aroma of their vegetarian lunch boxes.
Essentially, Merit is a tall building full of assembly lined, well-oiled Brahmin robots who receive all the training very early to take over the world – Engineering, MBA, IIT, IIM, and now because it’s cool – humanities.
Merit is definitely not just hard work then. It’s the license code to being allowed someplace because you are of the right kind.
And this became starkly obvious to me when I started working as a teacher. I was still blind to caste in many, many ways. And discovering Ambedkar wouldn’t happen for a couple more years. But again, there was that growing anonymous discomfort with myself. I think back to the time when a Brahmin colleague declared over lunch one day ‘I am proud to be a Brahmin.’ I think back to the time when there was clandestine discussion over my NET qualification and its validity because apparently there was no evidential ‘merit’ involved.
I can only cringe with disgust now. It is clear to me that caste networks operate invisibly but quite strongly everywhere, especially in schools and colleges, and even among students. Here of course it takes on various forms – talent, good English, knack etc.
In the classroom, I am quick to sense when a student doesn’t find me challenging enough. When I take books that I’ve liked into the classroom – it is with a faint hope that if I can open out the book for them — something might click, and they will want to read it. I have learnt to rely strongly on my own pleasure to be able to reach out to students.
But the students’ demands on my ability to offer challenge, puzzle is blurring into that dangerous line where they switch off pleasure completely. I am horrified by their indifference to pleasure. What is the point of literature if you only want to capitalize it into an app that offers challenge and devalues pleasure?
Isn’t pleasure political? Doesn’t that make it a challenge? A book that did this for me was Nabokov’s Lolita. I struggled because I couldn’t believe how much I was being seduced by the damn book. And that immediately became political.
One of the things I have learnt from reading Paromita Vohra and watching her interviews obsessively is the idea that no one can and no one must define what is pleasure or what is political for you. That choice is yours to make and yours alone.
I might be the lesser person here for putting pleasure over everything else. And I know I cannot escape it when it leads to situations I often find myself in. For instance, it hurts my eyes when I notice students dumb themselves down to talk to me. But at least it doesn’t hurt my heart, thank god. Just my eyes, but oh my eyes! My eyes!
But I’d rather have pleasure – you keep your merit OK? Tata bye bye.
What I have in abundance, that all Dalit people have, is the desire to learn, and the longing to feel alive.
This is the first thing I learnt from Ambedkar.
The next was that merit needn’t be something we cannot touch. Either by challenge or pleasure, if we can get to the point where learning becomes something we are invested in every day, then we have won.
When I saw this, it became tolerable, even desirable for me to look into the mirror every day.
A nagging question I have had of all big movements, whether it is feminism or the anti-caste movement – is what to do in situations that life throws at us?
Bratty cabbage girls who hate female teachers, Brahmin batata vadas who smirk when you talk about caste in classrooms. How to deal with them? I find that every now and then, I discover an answer because I’m always looking for one.
I went from anger to humour, from Ambedkar to Dhasal to Manjule, and found the answer with Gogu Shyamala.
The women in Gogu Shyamala’s stories (Father may be an elephant and mother only a small basket, but…) make me feel more empowered than #MeToo and #Losha.
In Jambava’s Lineage, Cina Ellamma is a young Bhagotam performer of the Nizamabad Chindu Ellavva Troupe. One day a bunch of upper caste men abuse her and she is outraged. She goes to the senior Ellamma for advice and this is what Ellamma tells her –
My child, we too have lived through many similar experiences … but we have somehow managed to keep the art of the Chindu Bhagotam alive. Those who resent or dislike us will speak harshly. We have to deal with them, persuade them maybe, but make sure that we continue with our own work. What you saw happening today is nothing compared to the high-handedness of the dora folk in the villages when I was a young girl. They would make us do all the work, and then say ‘keep your distance … you son of a madiga … chinduloda… dakkaloda’
As they listened to Ellamma, Cina Ellamma fell silent. Something touched her deep inside.
Ellamma continues –
‘The best way for us is to attract them with our performance, to make it so riveting that they sit and watch for hours. That is the most fitting reply to those who try to ride rough over us.
On stage I’d bring out all the anger and suffering hidden in my heart. I’d indirectly abuse some of the men sitting in the audience as if I was referring to someone else. Initially they were very angry, but gradually they changed, and grew more polite’
I am sorry if you don’t see the connection here but I do. Perhaps because Gogu Shyamala is writing about my women – not yours. My ancestors entertained and performed for a living. And this story is equally important to me as a teacher because what is teaching if not performance? When I am doing my job, there is room for a lot of Savarna noise to drown me out. When this happened in 2015, I was crippled. It took me years to move on. I wish I had it in me back then to make my performance so riveting that they sit and watch for hours.
Instead I whined and moped and did nothing except fume.
In Tataki Wins Again, Balamma walks like a ghost at the crack of dawn to go water her fields. If she is late, the upper caste landlord would empty all the water into his fields. And that’s why she’d wake up at 4 in the morning and get there before him, every single day. This offended him so decides to rape her.
He grabs hold of her one morning and drags her into the fields. When he begins to molest her, Tataki ‘takes aim and kicks him as hard as she could on the groin with both her legs.’
The landlord collapses.
In the village, the mala and madiga women giggled through their sari ends as they shared the news, “The landlord wanted to catch our balamani. She kicked him in the groin!”
When I read these stories I feel like I have more than just answers. I have a way to live.
At the Dalit Women’s Conference last year, Ruth Manorama said that our Dalit women must never respond to campaigns like #MeToo because we just end up becoming numbers for the benefit of Savarna Feminists.
It doesn’t happen to me very often but I heard my heart click into the right place when she said it.
My Mouma is a champion in life. She represents herself and she is not bound by anything. She is 82 and takes care of herself like a queen. If you mess with her, she will hit you on the head with a water bottle that she always carries around.
These are the women I want to read and write about. Sumitra, the woman in my short -story is vulgar in her laughter and dirty in demeanor.
I had just been looking in all the wrong place for answers but as it turns out – Dalit women have always had answers to these questions. Women with loud and vulgar laughter who, like their hair, are mad and untamable – always do.
*Featured Image Credits – Savarna Audience by Dr Sylvia Karpagam at drsylviakarpagam.wordpress.com