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
A new contest we’ve added this year (for other fests to grab, and announce it as the first time anyone in college has ever conducted it) is Pretext.
I’ll just say the word interpret and give you a picture of Hitler’s jingling anatomy and a Nazi symbol for heart. Do what you can in 5 minutes. So this happened on Day Seven and we saw some ten contestants staring at fellow team mates hungrily and blinking rarely.
Our first Panel at Meta was to commemorate 50 years of JAM (Just a Minute) Our panelists were alumni Darius Sunawala, Prof Cheriyan Alexander and students Izrael and Zahed.
Coming as I do with only a degree in Bollywood, I had for the longest time assumed that JAM is what little Anjali did in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – where she picked the word Maa and stumbled and stuttered until Paa came and rescued her.
I was wrong. JAM has been adapted and made raita-khichdi of by many. It was a delight to watch Darius speak of the good ol days. Prof Arul Mani had told us at JAM the other day that Nicholas Parsons based the rules of JAM on an incident from school. His professor caught him daydreaming and asked him to explain to the class what was being discussed without hesitation, repetition and deviation (!)
CK Meena’s Lec Dem on women in journalism was proof that we need sessions like these every other week. Some five bois were rolling eyes at the mere mention of women.The eyes came out of sockets when she hadn’t even reached the fem of feminism.
Nevertheless, she told us about how women reporters back then were rare and if they did join, were given dog shows and cake shows and flower shows to cover. Maybe the bois should have rolled eyes at this.
Day Eight began with a change in venues. But that has never bothered Meta.
Our event Nose Cut (are the creative peeps listening?) was quite the hit. After slight mind acrobatics, it was decided that Alok Nath, Rakhi Sawant, Tiger Shroff and Lola Kutty would be put together. Most of the participants chose Alok Nath and the one team that chose Lola Kutty won the audience over with his rendition of confused malluness and ever-falling pallu. At one point he said ‘female chetas’ and people howled.
Anchor What made me Dil-Khush yesterday because two BCA students came first.
The gulabi moment of the Young Adult Fiction panel was one Miss Sarah Rodriguez announcing quite coolly that “no writer writes for the entire world” and Prof Rincy Thomas declaring that “there should be an event at Meta where boys should be given a copy of The Princess Diaries” – that was our all-women – all -kickass – panel at Meta this year.
The highlight of the day was writer SR Ramakrishna talking about translating the late UR Ananthamurthy’s autobiography – Suragi. When he read out some excerpts, I couldn’t help but notice how much the voice was like the one in Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri (A word with you, world – also translated by SR Ramakrishna)
It was amusing to note that in three of the five excerpts he read, three people died — and all very casually. ‘He played cards and then he died’
Managed to get a signed copy. Cannot wait to read it.
My favourite scene in the film Mona Lisa Smile is Katherine Watson’s second Art class with the girls. It is supposed to be vengeance. But Miss Watson is able to go beyond it. She was unprepared for her first class with them. She was expecting them to be extra smart, but not unimaginative enough to mug the entire text book. And they did exactly that and blocked her from doing anything else or anything new in the first class.
So in her next class, she takes things into her hands quickly, quietly and is able to establish control. There is no chance of a one-on-one with the snobbish Betty Warren. She won’t allow it. This is something worth learning from Katherine Watson. Of deciding which battles to pick and which to let go. While Betty Warren’s attacks are malicious and unflinching, Watson is calm and draws focus away from Betty and directs it towards the discussion. There is no malice, only the desire for conversation.
This is a film I have gone back to very often. Now more than ever because I am learning how to be patient with students. They are growing up like me – and are just as prone to shifting perceptions as I am. Often it is easy for teachers to forget what it was like to be a student and become unempathetic.
And it’s harder to empathize in moments of fury when you are convinced that the student is just wrong or annoying.
Six years of running Meta have taught me that losing calm is no way to handle situations, even if it is easier to yell at sometimes powerless students. Taking deep breaths and learning to let go is the hardest thing to do when you are in a classroom or organising something.
But I am slowly becoming more aware of myself in these moments – it’s a small way to take control.
Like every year, we wondered if we have the energy to run Meta. And like every year we decided we don’t have the energy – that we need to shrink Meta down to a manageable size, and like every year, we did it anyway.
Today was the inaugural of the sixth edition of Meta. We began with the Fan-fiction contest which saw 11 participants. Not too great, but some of the students were from other colleges so not too bad as well.
The inaugural was ceremoniously marked by the absentee lamp- happily replaced by letting 90 yellow balloons in the air.
JAM has always been a highlight and this year we had a solid participation by 20 students. Let’s just say that interesting things happen on stage when students from different states contest with one another.
The rains teased us for a bit and then decided to just break down and it poured and poured. Ever noticed how the Banyan tree silently rebels? Especially when it rains.
Volunteers were seen performing risky acrobatics to get the art back drop down safely. JAM was shifted to the Staff Seminar Hall which proved to be a better venue. The participants began objecting very intimately – as if they were pillow fighting with cousins. By the final round, they knew each other well enough to imitate each other.
And that’s how we know we had a good day. As someone famous once said, ‘Imitation breeds good feels’
When I was in the 8th std, I stared at windows a little too much. One afternoon, simply gazing outside, I found the courage to take part in an essay contest. A girl I really admired had been winning debate competitions and I felt like I should do something too.
The topic of the essay was Swami Vivekananda and I had no idea what to write,how to write. So I spent one afternoon in the library looking for a book about him and mugged up a couple of things. I then proceeded with full gusto to repeat whatever I could remember. I assumed the more I could remember, the more my chances of winning were. The rest of the class was out on a field trip to planetarium. I told myself I was doing the right thing by not going.
By the fourth sentence in the essay contest, I had emptied whatever little I was able to gather about the damn man. I had nothing to say about him. I handed over my entry and walked out feeling disgusted with myself. There were some 15 people still writing ferociously.
I should have just gone to the planetarium – I continued to tell myself. But I’m glad I stayed back and tasted disgust that day because today it has taught me to appreciate imagination whenever and wherever I see it.
The Children’s fiction contest today saw ten participants. This was the starter –
“The short girl just stood there with her hair falling over her eyes. Her mother shifted from foot to foot as the teacher told story after story—late-coming, homework not done, and failed test papers. In the middle of all this thunder and lightning, she saw something that made her smile. She fought it valiantly, and because she fought it, it grew into a determined little cloud and it burst forth from her lips in little giggly bursts. Things went from bad to worse, but what could she do?”
When I see the possibility of what a student is able to do when you challenge her with the gift of her own imagination, I want to say screw Vivekananda.
The Spelling Bee had 30 participants today. I sat in for one round and felt victorious when I realized that I had spelled Mulligatawny correct. Out of 6 questions, this was the only word I was able to guess, so – bonus. Even if I was only able to guess because of the hint provided (you will get this in Koshy’s) – it’s still a win.
But what blew my mind away was learning that Kedgeree comes from Khichdi (!)
Our homemade event BollyGood has always received maximum voyeurism. This is nice but also sorrowful. If everyone comes to watch, who will do?
*** Naveen Tejaswi‘s Interactive Photo Essay session on the Rohingya refugee camps began with the usual tech-related glitches but he won it over with his stories. He brought us tales of chain-smoking men he was too afraid to say anything to. And of Bangladeshi people who were crazy about Malayalam films.
The excellent Janet Orlene conducted a Poetry Slam workshop. Participants were taken through solid metaphor exercises and stage-fright relieving techniques.
I am producing here the poem of one Miss Aishwarya Bhaskar who returned from the workshop saying, ‘I didn’t know I could write poems’
I am a banana peel
I am yellow in color
I am not judging cows for eating me
I am liked by flies and other insects
I am friends with plastic covers
Because we go into the trash together.
When I see all this, I remember dabba Vivekananda and my heart sighs. Then I wonder if students today prefer Avivekananda and my heart sighs louder.
I came very close to crying in class last week. We were looking at obituaries and I was reading out this one that always makes the lump in my throat grow bigger. I pinched my arm, and told myself that what I find emotional may not necessarily be something that everyone else finds emotional. So I bawled like a baby from the inside, kept a stern face and continued reading.
This obituary is a reminder to myself to never take for granted what I have – whatever little it is.
When people you know yap without reservation about merit, and how “they” are taking away what is “yours,” maybe you should remember this girl’s story. Remember, perhaps, the loneliness of those who struggle against odds greater than you can ever know, and how little the abstract mercy of our system can help those who fight hard and grow weary. Practice the small humility that can come from knowing.
When I count the number of times I have felt like crying in classrooms, I am distracted by the number of times I have cried in classrooms. If there is such a thing as prayer then I believe in it wholeheartedly – only when I am close to sobbing like a tap in classes and have to pray/beg to stop.
I once wept uncontrollably when a student yelled at me. I like to believe I wept only because it was a girl. Had it been a boy, I would have made a fuss. I am now quite the expert at castration. This could be a good thing but it just means that I don’t know what to do when kutti little girl patriarchs misbehave.
My friends told me I shouldn’t have cried in front of her. But I don’t know how I could’ve stopped it. My voice did the jingly thing it does when it feels bad for itself.
Like it did a couple of days ago when I was trying to explain to my sister why we shouldn’t feel guilty about using reservation. I was repeating what M has told me so often, ‘Reservation is your right. Don’t let anybody make you feel guilty for using it’ — As I was saying this, my voice began to shake and my eyes welled up.
I was supposed to moderate a panel later that day on upper caste control over documenting Dalit experiences, and wondered how I’d hold back from bawling if my voice got all jingly again. One trick is to self-induce yawning. When I know I’m about to weep, I just open my mouth obscenely so no one will know if the tears are actual tears from being an emo fuck or a yawn.
Crying comes just as naturally to me as peeing and I hate it. It makes arguments weak. So my friends were right when they said that I shouldn’t have cried in front of her.
Later that week, while talking to a student about her writing – she asked me if there’s such a thing as ‘too personal’ when it comes to writing — if I feel vulnerable after putting out my entire life on the blog for the whole world to read.
It was a very reassuring conversation. I often forget that shamelessness is the first step towards writing and I need to be reminded of this again and again even though I believe it on auto-pilot terms. That conversation also made me see how much I have changed and grown over these years. And how much writing itself has come to mean completely different things to me now. Today I cannot separate history, caste, and community from writing. It’s important that I write shamelessly, ceaselessly, sometimes aimlessly because no one else is going to tell my story or my family’s story.
As I was saying this to her -I teared up, again. Maybe I should just stare at walls when I’m PMSing.
What a weepy week it has been.
In other news, rumlolarum will soon reach 300 posts. Cannot wait! I am looking forward to doing some blog revamp.
I am here today to slow down, to take measure of things, to take a moment to breathe, look back and breathe some more. Nothing that has happened in the past few years is an accident. I started this blog to teach myself how to write. It might be the new-year happies but I am making a moment out of this moment because I have a lot of things to say today.
Sometime in the month of October, I wondered if my blog was developing a certain direction. It’s because I read and wrote more about caste than I have about anything else this year. A lot of my posts and essays this year were attempts at making sense of my life, work, and relationships and I could only have written them after I had seen caste. It’s not something you can unsee after seeing.
It took me a while to see caste in my life. What do I mean by that?
My parents have protected me for as long as they could. They still do. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I even know my caste. That’s how hard they’ve worked to ensure my safety in a world they grew up in – and know so well. I wonder then – would I be craving to know more about my caste were I an engineer or a doctor today? I don’t know. But I’m glad I’m in a profession that demands writing and reading from me vigorously, tirelessly.
I’m glad that my job involves dialogues with students. Because it’s here in the classroom that I get to meet some fascinating, talented, and also arrogant people. And it’s also here – in this space that my parents cannot protect me.
‘Why isn’t Vj political about her identity?’ was something someone once asked.
I was amused because it is a stupid question. What did they want me to do? Wear a board that said ‘I am Dalit’ and walk around?
I was writing then just as much as I am writing now. What can be more political than writing?
Maybe they wanted me to be politically active on Facebook. So if I had shared a couple of newspaper/magazine articles on the atrocities against Dalits, that would have made me political about my identity no?
I have come to hate this word – political. At one point, I wanted to get a dog and name it poly – short for political. Because I don’t know – just.
It’s stupid, ridiculous and violent to demand someone to be political. It’s just as bad as making Aadhar mandatory or making the entire theatre stand up for the national anthem. Because all these demands come from the same place. The demand to see your response. To check. To see if you meet expected standards.
But what is the point of showing up to a protest in town hall if you are there only to mark attendance of those absent?
I have arrived at this point in my life at my own pace. That’s how it is with most people. There’s no need to be Meena Kumari if people decide to go watch Bahubali first day first show instead of attending your radical talk on ‘freedom of expression.’
Maybe there’s genuine freedom of expression happening when a bunch of 45 -year -old middle-class housewives look forward to something more important than the return of daughters, sons and husbands from office. So they wake up one morning knowing that by the end of the day, they’ll know why Katappa killed Bahubali – that is perhaps more political than finding out what great revolution is happening in the lives of a privileged few who have the freedom to go to a protest.
It took me a while to reach and read Ambedkar and understand why he is so important to me, my family, and my history. But now that I have, he is permanent in my life and that’s the best thing to have happened to me this year.
Even so — within the boundaries of a classroom, I wonder how it is for the many other Dalit teachers out there. While classrooms can be a space for growth, knowledge blah blah… they are also spaces of violence. I have heard of stories where teachers have been prejudiced against Avarna students. But what happens when a Savarna student with a certain kind of education and a certain kind of English decides that a Dalit teacher has nothing to teach him/her? How is it visible?
From my experience, it is visible in the way they patronize you, in the way they treat the assignments you give them in class, in the way they decide that they can learn more and better without you and the amount of time they spend in coaxing other students to lose respect for you.
Is there a way out of this? There is and I learnt more about it this year.
After Ambedkar, AM is the most inspiring example. There was a point when I used to call him Grammar Nazi. But then he called me Grammar Jew and I resigned. I know now why he taught himself to be perfect in the things he does, and in the things he says and writes. It’s so that no Savarna idiot can point a finger at him. When he writes, it’s impossible to not be overwhelmed by his power over language. As far as I can see – this is what pisses them (whoever) the most. That they cannot point out flaws with his argument because they can’t point out flaws in his language.
Writer Sujatha Gidla once told me – ‘English is a weapon in the hands of Indians. You can fend off casteism to a small extent by wielding it’
It’s what Ambedkar did. It’s what AM does. And it’s also what I am slowly learning to do.
An incredible event this year was the Dalit Women Speak Out conference. It was a turning-point of sorts because it’s the most powerful thing to have ever happened to me. It forced me out of loneliness in a world that is run by making people invisible. AM had once said – ‘If spaces matter to you, you must claim them to create them’
And that’s what we must do. In the classroom and outside. Claim spaces. Make noise. Sing songs. Dance loudly. And it’s what numerous Dalit women did that day on stage.
When I walked out of the auditorium, I was shaking. I saw Gee outside and something just went off. We both broke down and clung to each other. We didn’t have to say anything or explain anything. We just understood.
Someone creepily took off one picture and I am not complaining because this is my favourite picture of the year 🙂
The first time I read The Husband Stitch, I wished I hadn’t read it. Because I knew that the many times after I’d reread it, I would continue to ask myself what it was like the first time -like asking someone who likes sex about their first time.
Reading it the first time was difficult. I had to pause every now and then and do something else. It was early November and I had a whole day yawning at my disposal. AM sent me the link and as I began to read it, I had the vague discomfort that only someone who is tragically falling in love can have.
Then there was this laziness that occasionally comes even when you have found a great piece of writing, and sometimes, especially after you have found a great piece of writing. This happens because the mind bookmarks it for a moment in the future where the reading will happen and where the energy to be left smitten and ravaged can be found in plenty, and- guiltlessly.
But I pushed — because I knew that the preliminary pleasure to be derived from The Husband Stitch was going to be like no other.
The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you. Or
perhaps the moral is that brides never fare well in stories, and one
should avoid either being a bride, or being in a story. After all, stories can
sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.
Every time I had read a great line, I’d put my phone away, sigh, and dig deeper into the folds of my rug. I would shut my eyes for not more than three minutes before straightening up and starting over again.
Scoffing is the first mistake a woman can make
Pride is the second mistake
And being right is the third and worst mistake.
The Husband Stitch was and still is the most haunting story I have ever read – the kind that makes you want to impose it on all the people you know and love. The kind that allows you to grow a little, no matter how overshadowed you are by it, and want to be.
As a teacher, here was another tiring thing I felt compelled to do – which was to take it to class after class and make students read it, with the hope that they will fall in love with it, like I had.
But – as I have come to learn – This is the worst mistake a teacher can make — especially if you are an Avarna woman teacher. And if like me, your language is questionable, if you falter over difficult words and don’t have answers to questions – then it doesn’t matter how much you love something, you will never be good enough. Not as good as someone Savarna or someone male or someone both.
I used to think I wasn’t good enough. Or rather, I was made to think I wasn’t good enough.
But I don’t let myself think that anymore.
Not because I have suddenly found confidence but because I recognise now how power works. Because centuries of Savarna assholes have gotten away by making a lot of people feel that they aren’t good enough, that they will never be good enough.
So now even if I’m not good enough, I tell myself it is okay. As long as I have stories to take cover under, and learn from – then everything will be okay. From Ambedkar, to Vaidehi, to Marquez, and Machado – I must keep trying. It’s what my father did, it’s what my mother does, and it’s what I must do.
Stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. They are each borne from the clouds separately, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.
How did I do The Husband Stitch in class then?
Today, I do that story in the classroom as though I own it – as though it came from my body after days and nights of sacrifices. But always remembering and painfully knowing that i did not write it. Maybe that’s how one must do stories in classrooms. As though something of value was sacrificed for it. As though without you, they would just burst into tiny puffs of smoke and disappear.
(If you are reading this story out loud, move aside the curtain to illustrate this final point to your listeners. It’ll be raining, I promise.)
Soon, I had found another reason to drag The Husband Stitch to other classes; I had to undo the memory of doing it the previous time. And so each time I do it, I am simultaneously undoing it. As a result – as of this moment, I know a couple of lines, and two paragraphs by heart. That’s the great thing about loving the same story everyday– that it can liberate vulnerable people who carry what they love proudly.
I did the story again, today. And loved it –again. And I felt the same wave of possibility that makes writing seem all at once doable and at once monstrous.
It’s what makes teaching enjoyable – I can fall in love everyday, shamelessly – with the same story – again and again and no one can take this away from me – no matter how good they are.
I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten the rest of the story.
*** All the sections that appear within quotes are from Carmen Maria Machado’s short-story – The Husband Stitch ***